“I've never seen Amsterdam's streets so empty, not even the morning after King's Day,” writes Amsterdam-based journalist Tahrim Ramdjan. He observes that in countries that are currently affected the most by the Coronavirus, after the initial panic and sadness, people start to reflect and come to their senses. He wondered whether his home country the Netherlands is at the dawn of such a period and spoke to historian Rutger Bregman, philosopher Daan de Rovers and anthropologist Danny de Vries.
Every day I cycle around the city, to make sure that I am aware that the world isn’t vanishing. It keeps me mentally fit. As an extrovert, the anti-Coronavirus measures have serious implications for people like me: I should keep at least one and a half meters' distance from my beloved fellow man.
Then I suddenly realise that the Chinese city of Wuhan has been completely cut off from the outside world for over a month now. In this city of millions, people have started to hear birds whistling for the first time. “I thought we didn’t have birds here, but now it comes down to me that we’ve never noticed them before because of all the traffic and people,” wrote Wuhan resident Rebecca Arendell Franks on social media.
And in Rome, which has been on lockdown for a week, the 'song of the Italians' echoed through its streets last Friday. Not because it was a national holiday, but because the Romans orchestrated it themselves from their balconies, accompanied by the sounds of accordions.
'In Wuhan, a city of millions, people have started to hear birds whistling for the first time'
In the countries that are currently affected the most by the Coronavirus, after the initial panic and sadness, people start to reflect and come to their senses. As we find ourselves confined to our homes, are we, in the Netherlands, at the dawn of this period?
As I cycle through a quiet Amsterdam, I can imagine we are.
An empty Rokin, one of the main streets of Amsterdam. Picture by Tahrim Ramdjan
Rutger Bregman (31), historian and best-selling author of Utopia for Realists and his latest book, to be translated into English, De meeste mensen deugen (Most people are good), thinks so too. "What struck me after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was that the news coverage was full of images of looting and rape. When scientists later investigated the situation, it turned out that those stories were unconfirmed rumours." In fact, people started to work together on a large scale. "There was even an armada of small boats coming from Texas to rescue people."
What is taking place in China and Italy at the moment reminds Bregman of the sociology of natural disasters – which is applicable to the virus outbreak to a certain extent. "We see that people suddenly reconnect with their neighbours." He points to '#coronahulp': a social media initiative in the Netherlands through which healthy, young people offer to go shopping or walk the dog for people who are in a vulnerable position. Bregman would never argue – 'like those conservative, right-wing types' – that the Netherlands needed such a disaster to happen. "However, it is true that at moments like this we find meaning and purpose. That's what people search for in life."
'It is true that at moments like this we find meaning and purpose. That's what people search for in life'
According to Daan Roovers (49), Denker des Vaderlands (a honorary title in the Netherlands which is awarded to a prominent philosopher for a two-year period), this can be explained by two factors: time and disruption. "I don’t have much appointments scheduled for next week, and I notice that I've lost part of my routine – the things I used to do on autopilot." As soon as that routine is missing, there’s room for reflection. "You're going to ask yourself, is it really necessary to go to the office? Why do I need to visit someone, or go to a bar, so badly? Can't I go for a walk in the park?" However, Roovers notes, it requires several months to permanently replace a particular routine.
The fact that time suddenly comes available also results in collective relief. Anthropologist Danny de Vries (48), affiliated with the University of Amsterdam, makes the comparison with going on a holiday and leaving your mobile devices at home. "Then you also quit society for a while." In the 1970s, political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) pointed out that absent-mindedness is what threatens our societies the most.
'The fact that time suddenly comes available also results in collective relief'
Through constantly producing and consuming, we would never have time to pause and reflect. She warned that we should be careful not to become animal laborans – animals used for human labor. Fast-forward to 2020, in times of a non-stop 24-hour economy, Arendt's call seems more relevant than ever.
I recognise this as it has occurred to me recently. Until the University of Amsterdam closed its doors, I was planning when I would learn for my exams under high pressure. "This space for reflection is so hard to achieve in our culture," says Roovers. "We’ll witness how the economy takes a hit. That can only be beneficial for us."
After all, what can we do during a weekend when football matches and parties are cancelled? Over the weekend, Roovers tried to buy some flour ("not to hoard, of course", as thousands of Dutchmen hoarded mostly toilet paper out of the supermarkets), to bake a bread with her two children. "Slowly you’ll get bored, no matter how many series you watch on Netflix. And I don't even have a Netflix account."