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  • Nina Reis

Coronavirus and democracy, what do Amsterdam students think of the ongoing social crisis?

By Pandam

Published Sat Apr 11 2020

Wrapping your head around the biggest world crisis since WWII is not an easy task: there is so much uncertainty, there are so many questions, so much instability. Spring is finally creeping into the canals and the parks of Amsterdam but for this year we can forget the drinks and barbecues with friends, the ease and joy of the first days of warmth. Something as small and invisible as a virus has changed our life: what should we think about it?

PanDam interviewed some university students who shared with us their stories and opinions. To wrap our heads around these wierd times we must think and we must reflect. “People of the west, keep a close look on your leaders, in this age of mass manipulation, deprivation of freedom might happen without the majority even being aware of it,” writes Bence Juhász, from Hungary. For Bence, the COVID-19 crisis has been far more than the shutting down of university and the beginning of self-isolation: “Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán has now managed to pass a law in the parliament, taking advantage of his supermajority of 2/3 of MPs enabling him to rule by decree. For good." To him, coronavirus is “the biggest chance for opportunists”. Across Europe, democratic countries have been making unprecedented trade-offs between civil liberties and flattening the coronavirus curve. But while nations like the Netherlands can arguably trust in their leaders, "If one looks a bit more to the east, from Netanyahu to Orbán, strongmen like to take advantage of the state of emergency to continue their hunt for people’s freedom (or what’s left of it)."

Lena Hoffman, from Berlin, speaks of the extreme vulnerability of our system in the face of external circumstances beyond our control: “European stability and prosperity as we know it partly relies on an illusion which structures our individual psychology and actions. Is this illusion about to crumble?”. While it will hopefully not crumble, it will definitely change, and perhaps even drastically. “The global effects of this crisis are difficult to imagine, but this external shock could deeply reshape how we trade, travel, consume and interact globally,” explains Lena.

Lena also finds that there are some similarities between the COVID-19 crisis and the looming climate crisis: “When people speak of a climate crisis, I believe they refer to this very danger we are facing: exponential growth, tipping points, an emergency”. Two months ago, our understanding of ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ was superficial, but now the meaning of those words is becoming more and more tangible. Will this help us take the climate crisis more seriously? Will it teach us to be afraid of what it could bring with it?

As the weeks unravel, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the most vulnerable will be hit hardest by COVID-19’s worst economic and social effects. “Many existing injustices, domestic violence, socio-economic inequalities, psychological trauma, will be reinforced and deepened by this crisis. This parallels the calls of climate activists who warn that many of the world’s ugliest inequalities will worsen with the advance of the climate crisis,” writes Lena.

Eline Stapel, a Dutch student at the VU, speaks of the coronavirus response in the Netherlands as compared to that of Italy, Germany, Spain and France. Some European States have been quick in implementing nation-wide lockdowns, whereas the Netherlands continues to rely on 'smart' measures: " ‘Nuchter’ is a Dutch-word that many Dutch people associate with the national identity. It translates roughly to ‘matter-of-fact’, a ‘let’s-not-be-dramatic’ kind of attitude. When Italy, Spain and France already had thousands of cases, the ‘nuchter’ Dutch approached a ‘business-as-usual’ tone by beginning to close universities, yet keeping schools, restaurants, sports centers, and other social places open.

However, some sign of fear and nervousness had trickled through the city as the shelves of grocery shops emptied dramatically, creating a confusing mood of controlled panic… are we really as nuchter as we think we are?" writes Eline. In her opinion, while the Dutch attitude was effective in reducing panic, “it was too slow and lacked urgency”. In the words of Lena, “this moment unveils how delicate our societies’ (perceived) stability and prosperity are.” Do we have what it requires to protect them?

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