By Pekka Lehtinen
Many people have asked me how it has been possible to travel across borders during the corona pandemic with all the travel restrictions. I have also been asked in Finland about how life has been in the Netherlands with lockdown and, conversely, the Dutch have been curious about the reasons why the covid 19 situation has been so good – compared with nearly any other country – in Finland.
My spouse and I moved last summer to Amsterdam and since then we have had two homes: in Espoo and in Amsterdam. After the relatively normal summer of 2020, the pandemic took again a turn for the worse particularly in Central and Southern Europe. A variety of lockdown measures have been in force in the Netherlands since October 2020, and only during the past three weeks has life started to get closer to what it was pre-pandemic with the opening of restaurant and cafe terraces, (restaurants had been closed for 6 months for anything other than take-outs), of other than essential stores and cancellation of the night-time curfew.
We have lived as “normally” as possible in these strange circumstances but have, of course, been cautious with rather limited social life etc. Fortunately, we have remained healthy so far.
Travelling has been complicated but doable during the whole time of our Finnish-Dutch-living. It needs planning since we have had to present a fresh negative corona certificate at both ends and do the mandatory quarantines. Getting the tests and the certificates is expensive. We had to pay the invoices ourselves since we did not have symptoms and the tests were taken for travelling purpose. Fortunately, Finland has recently been added to the short list of “safe countries” by the Dutch government, so at least travelling from Finland to the Netherlands is getting easier.
The pandemic and simultaneous living in two countries have offered an opportunity to compare the policies of Finland versus the Netherlands to combat the corona and, particularly, how people in the two countries have reacted to and followed the official rules, restrictions, and recommendations.
Though on the surface as rather similar countries with liberal, democratic welfare societies, Finland and the Netherlands are quite different in many ways – also when it has come to adjusting to the various restrictions connected to the pandemic. There are some obvious reasons which clearly have helped Finland to “perform” well: the most sparsely populated country within the EU (18 people per km2) compared with the Netherlands which is one of the most densely populated countries in the world (nearly 500 people per km2). But I believe cultural reasons that go deep into the national character provide the main explanation for the Finnish success and the relative failure of the Netherlands when it comes to surviving the pandemic with a limited loss of lives.
It clearly is so much easier for the Finns to keep social distance – as we Finns know so well – than for the very social and lively Dutch. Even though the Netherlands was a quite Calvinistic country 50 years ago, it has now become a fun-loving, even “southern European” in its way of living in many ways, at least in bigger cities. Since last fall the Finns have been wearing – though it has not been mandatory – masks diligently: one can see many mask-wearing people on the streets of Helsinki though there is hardly any other person nearby. In small Finnish towns with no covid cases in months people wear masks when going shopping. However, in Amsterdam, which is really tightly packed, even for Dutch standards, you see people with masks only indoors where it is mandatory to wear it. Otherwise, nobody wears a mask and on a sunny day terraces, parks and canal banks are full of joyful Dutch mingling in large crowds quite mask-less.
The Dutch are very entrepreneurial people who have a high-level of trust just like the Swedes; when things are good it is probable that it always will be so. Finns, on the other hand, have lived next door to the Big Bear and the general thinking is that you can never rest on your laurels: life may be good now and we may be the happiest nation in the world, but the sky could collapse, if not tomorrow, at least next week!
The Finns are probably the most law-abiding people in the western world. When the authorities tell them to behave a certain way – in this case, to limit the spread of the virus – a great majority voluntarily does what has been asked by the persons of authority. This national characteristic has, at times, maybe gone to extremes when the Finnish government and health authorities have used rather blatant scare tactics to keep people in line. And the Finns have quietly complied – well almost…
Conversely, the Dutch are highly individualistic, even libertarian, and do not respect the authorities and orders the same way as the Finns. An old Amsterdam saying captures the mentality (roughly translated): ”I don´t care if you sh*t on the table, as long as none of it gets on my plate”. There are more people in the Netherlands who consider the whole corona as a hoax (the Viruswarheit Group) or, at least think that the limitations of civil liberties connected to corona measures have been way too excessive. Particularly in the winter there were many demonstrations and even some serious rioting against the strict limitations (strict according to Dutch standards!), including the night-time curfew. The great majority, however, has tried to take the pandemic seriously – that is to the extent fitting their relaxed lifestyle. Some Dutch parents, for example, have taken their children back to school after the family has been sick with corona without testing whether the children would have a negative virus status.
Despite nearly 1,6 million Covid 19 cases (with the population of 17 million), 17 000 corona deaths and still more than 2000 people in hospitals, most of the Dutch consider that the government has done a good enough job with its corona measures. In Finland the comparable figures are quite different, even considering the smaller population: less than 90 000 cases, around 900 dead and currently about 100 in hospital care for a country of 5,5 million people.
All in all, the Finnish “success” has been admirable compared to just about any other western country: a limited number of Covid cases/deaths and the economy overall having weathered reasonably well (excluding, of course, the travel, cultural, hospitality etc sectors). Still some Finns think Finland should have been even more restrictive with the lockdown measures to further limit the spread of the virus – and no matter what the cost would have been to the economy.
In the Netherlands, the number of casualties is many times larger than in Finland (in absolute numbers and compared with the population size) but the economy has equally survived well like in Finland – despite the lockdowns, lack of tourism etc., being devastating for the service sector in places like Amsterdam. And the Dutch still predominantly think that this has been a good enough way to handle the challenges, given the tough circumstances.
The same pragmatic attitude has been demonstrated with the Dutch way to arrange the Eurovision Song Contest of 2021 taking place this week. There has been little public discussion or demands to drop the event though the pandemic is still very much present in the Netherlands. A limited number of visitors (3,500) will be allowed to attend each show with the requirements to present a negative corona test certificate no older than 24 hours upon the entry. The audience must be seated, and the visitors are asked to undergo a post-test five days after the event. The artists, journalists and the personnel working for the organisation are under even more stringent testing protocol. The Song Contest is a Field Lab Event, meaning it is a part of a research project to investigate whether such measures would also work with events with increased capacity. We will see in the days to come how well things will go for the Eurovision organisation, the Dutch government and society as a whole with an event this large while the pandemic is far from being over.
Pekka Lehtinen, the author, is a Finnish corporate attorney based in Espoo and Amsterdam
Photo: By Adam