Something of the farmer, or the no-nonsense burgher, informs the Dutch spirit: a phlegmatic reaction to adversity which has only partly been shaken by the arrival of the new coronavirus behind the dykes. Foreign residents are notoriously unsettled by their Dutch doctors’ standard approach to ailments: “Come back in ten days, let’s just see how this develops”. Covid19 – at least in the early days – met with a similar response.

Granted, stocks of hand gel and liquid soap dispensers dwindled, but your ordinary burgher-about-town seemed to be shrugging off all the fuss. That was until an escalation in the number of infections in the province of Noord-Brabant last week, and the sudden announcement on Thursday by the prime minister, Mark Rutte, that measures being implemented there – including a stop to gatherings of more than 100 people, the closing of museums, and cancelling of sports events and concerts – were to apply to the country as a whole. People with coughs and other symptoms were advised to isolate themselves, and we were all requested to work from home as much as possible.

On Sunday afternoon came further strictures: the closing of schools until April 6, and of gyms, restaurants, bars and cafés from 6pm that evening. In a particularly Dutch move, sex clubs and the cannabis-selling ‘coffeeshops’ were closed, too. That led to long queues forming of people wanting to stash up on enough wiet to make a long shutdown endurable. In a later move, designed to prevent an increase in street-trading, coffeeshops were permitted to carry on selling through take-away hatches. Food-delivery and take-away businesses were also allowed to continue trading.

A coffeeshop in Amsterdam that remains open for takeaway orders

Credit:
PAULO AMORIM/NURPHOTO

Travel and freedom of movement so far remain unrestricted, and – perhaps with a good Dutch eye to business – hotels and shops remain open, though some stores with an established online trade have opted to close anyway. The approach is similar to that originally taken by the British government: to control the virus and allow the population to build up immunity, rather than opt for a total shutdown with heavy economic consequences.

Yet that first prime-ministerial announcement last Thursday changed people’s wait-and-see attitude overnight. The stricture on more than 100 people foregathering, ironically, turned supermarkets into seething centres of activity. As with many places in the world (and just as inexplicably) bulk packs of loo rolls were the must-haves. Tinned tomatoes, cans of beans and pasta (familiar shapes first, then even the odder types) also disappeared from the shelves. But if there has been panic buying, it’s been ordered panic, with at least 1.5 metres of separation, conducted with Dutch restraint and civility.

There have been moments of levity, too, such as when, at the end of a press conference advising an end to hand-shaking, Prime Minister Rutte turned and did just that with the health official beside him, stopped himself a little too late, bumped elbows instead, then left the room with his arm around the official’s shoulders. Hand-shaking is out, and the ubiquitous three-pecks-on-the-cheeks Dutch greeting even more so. Parks now offer the unusual sight of people walking together, but apart.

In a land that is happily high-tech, which has long had widespread good broadband, and which has always put emphasis on a good work-life balance, working from home seems like a natural development rather than an imposition. The novelty of the new measures has yet to wear off, and in my largely residential neighbourhood in Amsterdam there’s something of a holiday air, as parents buy their necessities accompanied by children in a school’s-out mode. The fact that after months of rain the weather has suddenly turned spring-like adds to an almost festive feel. Neighbours who would otherwise just give each other a casual nod, stand chatting (at suitable distance of course) in the street.

A rather quieter atmosphere than usual exists around Amsterdam’s canals

Credit:
YURIKO NAKAO

Amsterdam’s central canal belt, by contrast, for the past few years crowded with tourists at pretty much any time of year, is empty and quiet – like a Sunday afternoon in the 1980s, or as if you’d come out for a stroll at dawn. Only the red-light district still has clusters of people wandering round, as if the closed bars and curtained windows could somehow emanate the ghosts of past delights, and afford vicarious enjoyment. Here, in the historic centre, is where the most marked difference in this new life lies: at this time of year, as soon as the days even hint at warming, Amsterdam would usually be flocking out of doors to the café terraces. It is the absence of that communal change of gear that seems saddest of all.

Yet, there’s an upside, too. Wandering along these quiet canals, I was struck yet again at how unutterably beautiful this city is, with its decorative gables and faintly oriental spires, in the soft spring light. Bulbs are blooming all over town, whatever coronavirus does, and it’s a rare experience these days to be able to view it all almost alone.

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