Saturday, 2 January 2021

2021: between hope and fear

The year 2021 is upon us. Will it bring us a fresh start? I experienced the disaster year of 2020 with mixed feelings. Personally I have little to complain about unlike many others, but I am seriously worried about the angle society is taking.

When I looked out the rain-spattered window recently, during the dark days of December leading to Christmas, the desolation, the one-sided onslaught of the press and the lack of a prospect made me think of Communist East Germany, the GDR that used to be, where only one opinion was allowed and all fun had been drummed out of life. December 2020 in my home town of Leiden was as drab and grey as East German Leipzig in February 1979. I remember Leipzig well.
The corona virus turned life upside down – but so have the authorities. I know of the unsung heroes in the nursing homes, who work themselves to pieces or even catch the virus themselves. They were recently subjected to a shameless insult by our Cabinet’s chief medical adviser claiming they didn’t have the expertise to prevent infecting their patients! I remember the aged and infirm who died in solitude without being allowed to hold hands with their children. I do understand the risks, but the human dimension is completely lost.

But equally I think of all the damage inflicted worldwide by hard lockdowns, the effect of which isn’t clear except of possibly slowing the infection rate. We will eradicate corona no more than we eradicated influenza. In that light it is astonishing how many authorities have long disregarded newly emerging scientific evidence, such as ventilation protocols, holding on to absurd measures that may in the end prove as damaging to society as the virus itself.

It has become a governance crisis rather than a medical one - almost a year has passed and no lessons have been learned. All hope is being put on hastily developed vaccines, the effectiveness of which is yet to be seen.

Could it have been done any different? We do not know, because for some reason honest questions aren’t answered. A famous Dutch author, Godfried Bomans, once said ‘you can interrupt doing something sensible any time you like, but absurdities need to be carried through to the end, because that is their only legitimation.’

Public opinion is under pressure from a sensation-greedy press and publicity-hungry virologists, all instilling fear. Mattias Desmet, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium, tells of a vicious circle in which fear enforces absurd countermeasures, which in turn serve to increase the level of fear. There is an almost Orwellian level of thought control, every honest question about the wavering corona policy being dismissed as virus denial or outright madness. Just try and discuss it with your friends - your friendship may face a challenge.

Democracy is almost absent, except perhaps for the praiseworthy efforts of a few Dutch MPs who managed to uncover a scandal involving merciless and unlawful fraud hunting by our Treasury, heaping misery on thousands of families. A Parliamentary inquiry publicly shamed leading politicians and officials, who then just carried on as they were - the capacity to listen of those in power is zero. Our coalition closes ranks as soon as critical questions arise. The opposition mutters, but remains toothless. MPs do not vote independently as they once had to, but always follow Party discipline.

I don’t look forward to the general elections in March - as if there is something to choose from, in view of the lack of dualism and an electorate numb with fear.

Will I write a book on the corona crisis? Absolutely not - enough is being written about the subject already. The drama is enacted before our eyes in real time and the last thing needed is a novelist writing fiction about it. I do have a very different book waiting for publication however (Two Fathoms Down) as soon as I am allowed to give lectures once more.

My hopes for 2021? That the so-called ‘new normal’ of our PM Mr Rutte will soon become the new absurd, and once things are safe, Government will be as eager to release us from our bonds as they were to lock us up. That we’ll be allowed to hug our parents and children once more and meet our friends without fear of official sanction.

I hope that dualism and unbiased journalism will return, enabling inconvenient truths to be revealed. But I have grave doubts about that in view of the Dutch history of unrelenting officialdom. If the world comes to an end, I’ll go to Holland, where everything happens fifty years later, the German author Heinrich Heine said a century and half ago.

Despite all doubts, I secretly hope for a turn for the better at some moment in future. So I wish you all a healthy, prosperous and especially a free and untroubled 2021.


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