Hey Holland! Do Better.
I tend to admire the laid-back and pragmatic mindset of the Dutch. Especially when it comes to healthcare: Dutch doctors are known to be reluctant in prescribing medication, slow in referring patients to specialists, and keen in prescribing the “just take a paracetamol and sleep it off” prognosis. I think a lot of countries, especially mine, can learn something from their no-nonsense mindset.
But, as with everything, there is a time and a place. And with a pandemic on the horizon, now is not the time nor the place for the “resume business as usual’’ approach. In this small, densely populated country that is now coming up on 400 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, now is the time to proceed with an abundance of caution.
Institutions must do all that they can to help curtail this outbreak. But with their lack of cautionary measures, Utrecht University, along with other higher education institutions in the Netherlands, are failing this expectation. Universities must be more proactive mitigating the outbreak of the coronavirus, while still assuring the availability of ongoing education.
On March 9th, the Dutch Cabinet advised people living in the hard-hit province of Noord-Brabant to work from home. In response to the news, the University sent out an email urging students living in Noord-Brabant to continue coming to school, unless they felt sick.
“We value the continuity of our education,” they said in the statement sent out to students.
In other announcements, the university advised students— providing they feel okay— to continue attending school, even if they had recently visited high-risk countries like China, Iran, or Italy.
Their advice underplays the potential of the virus. According to a report by World Health Organization, people who are non-symptomatic can still transmit the coronavirus. The report also notes the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus and the particularly high threat it poses to the elderly and to people of compromised health.
In this global crisis, everybody needs to take individual responsibility to help avert a potential pandemic. We all must make responsible decisions by washing our hands frequently, covering our coughs, and staying home if we suspect we pose a threat to others.
But when lectures are not being recorded and posted online, and when attendance is still being taken, it becomes hard for students to make these responsible decisions. Students are then faced with a decision: good health, or good grades?
Not providing remote access to classes while advising students to continue their education will cause many students to decide to attend class, even if they feel ill. In order to ease the burden of the decision to stay home, the university should be investing in video conferencing and online test-taking platforms, such as Zoom, that aid in remote learning.
The “resume business as normal” approach of Dutch universities is particularly evident in their handling of positive test cases.
At Stanford University in California, all classes were cancelled and moved online when a faculty member tested positive for the coronavirus. Many other major universities followed suit— with some even cancelling in-person class meetings until the end of the semester.
Meanwhile, when a student at TU Delft in the Netherlands tested positive for the virus, the university announced the forbidding of shaking hands and asked sick people to stay home.
This approach has given people a false sense of security. None of my Dutch professors or classmates seem phased by the exponential growth of cases in the country. I still regularly see students coughing into their hands, leaving the restroom without washing their hands, and greeting friends with kisses on cheeks. This relaxed mentality has helped the number of cases to spike from zero to 382* in less than two weeks.
For contrast in mentality, take a look at Singapore or Taiwan.
Considering their proximity and connections to China, the outbreak was expected to become much more widespread. However, through firm and swift action, they managed to curb the expected outbreak.
They required a mandatory 14-day quarantine of people who travelled to high-risk places. They closed schools, distributed masks, implemented hand sanitizing dispensers and fever checks in public spaces, and even incurred penalties on people who failed to observe quarantine.
Dutch universities and officials should implement similar preventative measures if they want to slow the mushrooming of this virus.
The World Health Organization said on Monday that the threat of pandemic is becoming increasingly more real, but can still be controlled with mitigation measures.
Through investment in online schooling options and extra preventative measures around campus, Utrecht University and other Dutch institutions can help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in this country.
We should not wait for the situation to worsen: the time for action is now.
*at the time of publication