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Covid 19 Empathy and solidarity among the Dutch at the time of the pandemic

The past couple of months have taught us a lot: about viruses and the vulnerability of our self-created ecosystems, about the illusion of human control over nature, about the pitfalls of our public health care systems and the ways these should be solved. And we’ve learned that, despite the increasing polarisation in our society, there is a lot of human solidarity which we should cherish and nourish.

‘Gewoon mensen’

Right after the start of the so called intelligent lockdown in the Netherlands, heartily warming signs of solidarity emerged. Neighbours doing groceries for each other. Artists playing music in front of retirement homes for the elderly. Volunteers repairing and distributing laptops for kids in poorer families to do their schoolwork at home. In my own neighbourhood in the small city of Houten, we pooled up with a few neighbours to jointly take care of each other’s kids, enabling us to combine family and work responsibilities while schools and childcare were closed.

All these gestures and acts mainly took place on the local level, where people interact with each other as human beings, and share daily activities and routines. It is this present and physical human connection which makes it easier to show solidarity with other people. One of the main websites in the Netherlands for matching requests and offers for help in Covid times was called ‘Just Human Beings’ (‘gewoon mensen’).

Stereotypes and caricatures

But solidarity beyond our borders is another story and turns out to be a lot more challenging. The Dutch government is a proud member of the ‘frugal four’: an odd combination of four EU countries (Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands) opposing the EU Recovery Plan for repairing the post-Covid social and economic damage, mainly in Southern EU member states. Although the Netherlands is one of the founding fathers of the European Communities, and our economy is very much linked to European and global trade, there is a sentiment in society opposing another transfer of money to countries like Italy and Spain.

Why this lack of solidarity across our borders? Probably because this is about solidarity with governments, institutions, and member states, not directly with real human beings with whom we can interact. And if we try to imagine the Italians and Spaniards who have suffered a lot from their broken economies and the overloaded health care systems, we tend to think with stereotypes and caricatures of lazy southern Europeans, sometimes fuelled by populist media outlets.

So, to be able to show solidarity, and to act accordingly, we need to see ‘the other’ as a fellow human being.

That is why solidarity has impressively sprung up in Dutch streets, neighbourhoods and villages. But at the same moment, these Covid times have shown us that it is possible to establish human connections through computer screens and over long distances as well. The massive demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement, also in the Netherlands, have shown that it is possible to feel empathy with human beings on the other side of the globe.

Decent human mercy

Especially when we talk about children in refugee camps.

Last week, twelve prominent Dutch citizens, who were themselves child war refugees in the Second World War, wrote an open letter to the Dutch government. They made an emotional appeal to allow 500 children in Greek refugee camps to come to the Netherlands, stressing that what is being asked from us is ‘simply empathy and decent human mercy’. Over a hundred Dutch municipalities have shown their willingness to welcome these children and to take care of their well-being. Among the Dutch, there is empathy and solidarity for these children, who fled from war-torn countries and are now stuck in severe circumstances. Unfortunately, Dutch politicians are not yet ready to act accordingly, and still refuse to take in some of these kids.

But, I wish to conclude on the positive side: we’ve learned that if we connect with one another on the human level, if we look beyond the stereotypes and populist frames in politics and media, there is the empathy and solidarity which is so much needed in times of crisis. For this, we need human stories, we need narratives about who we are, what we share and how our common destiny will look like. Not just in our local neighbourhoods, but on a global level as well.

14 July 2020.


Mark Snijder is a writer, editor and researcher on young people and the youth field in the Netherlands and the MENA region. A Maydan member, he loves to unravel complexity, and strongly believes in one EuroMediterranean destiny.

(Photo by Shane Aldendorff)

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