As a Dutch national raised the Netherlands, who has lived in South Africa for close to 15 years, it is always interesting to compare the two countries and how problems are dealt with.

The corona pandemic creates a unique global challenge affecting every country. During my life-time I cannot recall any global event affecting the entire world the way the current pandemic does.

Since the Netherlands and South Africa are both severely affected by the same threat, one can make a good comparison between the way these countries have dealt with this crisis.

The crisis hit the Netherland probably a month prior to the first case being identified in South Africa.
The initial approach was to take caution, request the populations to stop shaking hands but essentially to continue life as usual. With the skiing season in early March, thousands of Dutch travelled to the Italian Alps, one of the Covid-19  hotspots at the time. Shortly thereafter the south of the country celebrated the annual Carnival, an event attracting thousands of locals into tiny bars and neighbourhood centres, the ideal conditions to spread the virus. By the end of March, the ICU units at local hospitals started filling up to capacity and the first fatalities were reported. Being able to track every case and potential spread already seemed nearly impossible.

Despite the severity, the Netherlands never implemented a formal lock-down, but a self-proclaimed ‘intelligent lock-down’ as it was often referred to. The Prime Minister announced a number of measures such as mandatory social distancing of 1,5m in public spaces, working from home as much as possible and closing of bars and restaurants and some other public facilities. Face masks were never encouraged at that stage. The Prime Minister called upon its people to be responsible and adhere to the 1,5m at all times in public spaces but at a nation should aim for group immunity. Group immunity can only be achieved once the vast majority has built up resistance. The sparing of the economy was always made a huge priority.

At the same time South Africa reported its first case. A gentleman from the scenic town of Hilton in KwaZulu Natal brought the virus back from holiday in Italy. Another few cases followed in the days thereafter. We were all taken by surprise about the firm action the South African government took at the stage the cases could be counted on a few hands. At the same time, we commended the government for being so pro-active. Now, nearly three months later South Africa very carefully starts to relax its stringent lock-down measures while the rate of infection continues to rise exponentially. In contrast, the Netherlands clearly seems to be through the first (and hopefully only) wave, with the ICU units dealing with only a hand-full of corona cases.

It is fascinating to see the difference in approach. The Netherlands adopting a very calculating approach balancing economy vs health. Of course, with its good health system, the decision was a little easier to take.

South Africa chose a rather authoritarian approach giving law enforcement all necessary tools to act where needed. Industries, provinces and the country as a whole were shut down and locked up. Little room was left for people to behave responsible.

Finally the approaches in both countries were different, but then one has to keep the local conditions, demographics and economics in mind, which differ vastly.


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By Hans Kroll