January 24, 2022

Amsterdam

Sitting respectfully in our ‘pews’, we put our hands together… and clap. This is not a service but a comedy night. And Amsterdam’s newest ‘church’ is really a theatre for debate and cultural centre in disguise. Incensed by the illogical nature of the current Dutch coronavirus restrictions, Yoeri Albrecht, director of De Balie, last week changed the statutes of his organisation and registered it with the chamber of commerce as a faith-based movement: overnight, The Philosophical Society; the Community of Reason was born.

It is unlikely to be the last. His example, a group of Dutch mayors predicted wryly in an open letter to the government, is likely to mark the start of “an unprecedented religious revival in the coming weeks”.

The Netherlands has been in partial or full lockdown since November, primarily due to the pressure of patients with the Delta variant on the hospital system and one of Europe’s least efficient booster campaigns. But just over a week ago, the restrictions were loosened — albeit in a strikingly surreal fashion.

In the Netherlands today, brothels can open but museums can’t. You can sweat, unmasked, in a gym but you can’t sit in a bar nursing a quiet gin. “You can come together in the Veluwe [in the country’s Bible Belt] to talk about a 2,000-year-old book, but you can’t get together in Amsterdam to talk about a book from last month,” as Albrecht put it.

So last Friday night, I was among 50 people who snuck into De Balie under the cover of darkness — for fear of the police turning up — who signed a big, black book to join the community, and prepared to enjoy a night of much-missed comedy. “The Philosophical Society; the Community of Reason is about democracy and the rule of law, the solace and consolation of culture, experiencing something together that culture can give, seeing a bit of light after two years of darkness,” said Albrecht – something of an unusual opening blessing.

Everything about the evening was as absurd as the situation in the Netherlands. The crowd devoutly wore face masks and staff religiously scanned coronavirus ‘QR code passes’. But the comics were not announced in advance, photos and recording were banned, and the whole affair had the illicit frisson of an under-age boozing session.

Yet De Balie is far from alone in its rebellion. Across the Netherlands, bars and restaurants have been opening regardless of the restrictions – especially in towns near the German and Belgian borders. On Saturday, for instance, 30 hospitality venues threw open their doors in Horst aan de Maas in protest. Last Wednesday, some 70 museums and galleries around the country decided to ‘open’ as temporary hairdressers, beauty salons and gyms – including world-renowned institutions such as the Van Gogh Museum, the Concertgebouw, and Amsterdam’s oldest theatre, De Kleine Komedie.

“We have a problem with the fact that hairdressers and nail bars and commercial activities can be open, and we can’t,” explained Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker. “We support everything we need to do in order to keep people safe. But this policy just seems contradictory and it seems to favour the commercial sector over the cultural one.”

Even the Dutch government appears to recognise this inconsistency. In a bizarre moment during a recent press conference, Mark Rutte emphasised that the Dutch have a constitutional right to protest, and that temporary openings could be viewed in this regard. “The right to demonstrate also applies to sectors like the hospitality industry, and I can imagine that mayors could look at ‘what’s allowed for a little while’… with the emphasis on ‘a little while’,” he said. “So if they want to open for a few hours to show ‘we are demonstrating’, then it’s up to the mayors how they deal with that.”

If it was an attempt to shunt on responsibility for enforcing his restrictions to local government (even though this is actually their structural role in the Netherlands), it soon backfired. Last week, 31 mayors — including Amsterdam chief Femke Halsema and non-conformist Breda mayor Paul Depla — wrote to the Government, pointing out that short-term policy-making is “reaching its limits” and putting local enforcers in a perilous position against a growing mood of civic disobedience. “It is in fact impossible but also undesirable for the state to use repression to forcibly convince Dutch citizens that the measures are correct,” they pointed out.

Ahead of the Government’s next coronavirus press conference tomorrow, it also emerged at the weekend that the country’s medical advisory body, the Outbreak Management Team, wants cultural and hospitality venues to reopen alongside everything else until 8pm each day.

No doubt it would be a welcome move; but is it too little too late? In the Netherlands, the damage from these lockdowns has become increasingly evident. In the government’s most recent press conference, new health minister Ernst Kuipers admitted that two-thirds of young people are suffering from loneliness. Even since the November partial lockdown, the SCP, a social and cultural government think tank, has found that psychological wellbeing had dropped, particularly among the young.

And as for the affected industries, it’s unlikely that, even if the restrictions are lifted, business will be able to return to normal any time soon. Thousands of people working in the hospitality and culture sectors have simply given up and looked for work elsewhere. Many will be in coronavirus quarantine, after coming into contact with someone who has been infected. And for those who do want to return, it won’t simply be a matter of turning up to work the day after an announcement is made. An orchestra can’t just suddenly pick up bows and be ready to perform again next week: they need advance notice to plan.

“You see that the Netherlands is mentally exhausted with the pandemic and all of the restrictions — young people but also a lot of others,” said Concertgebouw managing director Simon Reinink on Wednesday, as the orchestra gave a protest rehearsal in front of a crowd of 50 people. “The one thing that can give meaning to life is the cultural sector. There has been a chronic underestimation of the importance of culture for people’s psychological health and wellbeing — and this is a huge problem.”

And as more rules are broken, mainstream civic disobedience risks becoming a habit; this is a country where ‘rules’ (like soft drug laws) are already treated flexibly and even the prime minister admits society tends to be “slightly anarchistic”. “Rules only work if they rest upon social and political agreement,” pointed out the group of mayors in their letter last week. “For example, almost everyone in the Netherlands understands and respects the importance of stopping for a red light. Enforcement powers are there to bring the few offenders into line and issue fines.”

Despite last week’s mini-revolts, that remains a sentiment shared by most of the country. While “wappie” Dutch vaccine sceptics and pugilistic rioters sometimes make a lot of noise, 89.2% of the population is double jabbed, and almost 55% are boosted. Most of us have done our bit, we’ve followed the rules, despite their inconsistency and blunt capriciousness.

But all the signs suggest that we have reached a turning point: the latest reports suggest that while mostly-Omicron coronavirus infections are ramping up, the number of people needing hospital treatment is relatively stable.

It’s a dangerous situation, when people no longer understand the logic of the law and start systematically to break it. The comedy night is over. And looking at bleak days ahead, the Dutch are not laughing.