Dutch cities are on tenterhooks in anticipation of fresh rioting this weekend as the caretaker government of prime minister Mark Rutte continues to U-turn on its promise to gradually reopen society – instead retightening coronavirus restrictions in an increasingly desperate bid to save hospitals from gridlock.
Having abandoned masks, social distancing, restrictions in public places and private homes and reopened sports fixtures – often against the advice of its own experts – the government has finally been forced to acknowledge that for now at least the virus has the upper hand.
In a written note to MPs on Wednesday evening, health minister Hugo de Jonge admitted that the latest “partial lockdown” simply hadn’t worked. “The infection rate is higher than ever before”, he told them. “Hospital admissions keep exceeding expectations and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.” Meanwhile vaccination levels remain low at 43 per cent.
Rutte and his health minister face the daunting challenge of doing the maximum to halt the latest surge, while avoiding recourse to another potentially explosive overnight curfew
Rutte and his health minister spent Thursday and much of Friday in tense meetings with the independent “outbreak management team” facing the daunting challenge of doing the maximum to halt the latest surge, while avoiding recourse to another potentially explosive overnight curfew.
The first curfew of the pandemic was imposed on January 23rd, prompting memories in an older generation of the Nazi curfew during the second World War and sparking the worst riots the country had seen in 40 years.
A reprise of those running battles catapulted Rotterdam and The Hague onto global TV screens last weekend, and it’s unclear whether the riots were aimed at forcing Rutte to overreact and introduce another nightmare curfew – or just the opposite, to draw a line in the sand and prevent him from doing just that.
Perhaps the message was that proposals to widen the CoronaCheck QR code system to restrict access to a much broader range of public spaces are unacceptable because they potentially exclude the unvaccinated from a whole swathe of previously accessible daily life?
The problem is that one week and 173 arrests after what Rotterdam’s mayor described as “an orgy of violence”, nobody can give any coherent idea of what the rioters actually wanted.
The excuses have been legion and in many cases limp to the point of derision – particularly the idea that some of the rioters work in the port of Rotterdam where they’re dissatisfied with allegedly poor pay and conditions.
The most rational “excuse” on offer is that the rioters were up in arms at the introduction earlier this month of a three-week “limited lockdown” that brought back masks, early closing for bars, restaurants and shops, banned spectators at sports events and restricted visitors to private homes.
Those minor inconveniences were imposed in a belated bid to check a rising tide of new infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals around the country by filling their intensive care units with unvaccinated coronavirus patients – to the exclusion of cancer or heart patients, for instance, whose services have consequently ground to a halt.
There may indeed have been some protesters who felt it was their civic duty to take to the streets of Rotterdam on Friday in defence of good old-fashioned liberal values such as minimal government interference and maximum civil liberties.
Dutch government introduced a three-week ‘limited lockdown’ which reintroduced masks, early closing for bars, among other things. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty
But would anyone with that sense of social responsibility have headed to The Hague the very next day, expecting the inevitable repeat performance?
Of course, politicians and the police always try to minimise the extent to which reasonable people protest against their policies – preferring to characterise protesters in general as an unfortunate mixture of hardcore troublemakers (in hoodies, of course) and the hopelessly naive.
But what was different about last weekend was that the hardcore troublemakers were definitely in the ascendant numerically. Police sources say that more than half of those causing trouble were under the age of 18.
So if you add their pals of 18, 19 and 20, you have a good proportion of the “kids” who swarmed to the Coolsingel in the shopping heart of Rotterdam on Friday night in response to nationwide clarion calls on social media, including Snapchat, Instagram, Telegram and WhatsApp.
Two independent professional experts offer their interpretations of what happened and why. Public safety expert Marnix Eysink Smeets says there were three “hot button” issues in play: the possibility of wider QR code checks, but more than that the ban on supporters at football matches, and the recently announced ban on fireworks displays this New Year’s Eve.
“These are sensitive issues in the neighbourhoods these troublemakers come from,” he observed.
More than 23,000 new infections were logged in 24 hours on Tuesday, with 488 of the country’s 1,050 intensive care beds occupied by unvaccinated Covid-19 patients
Criminologist Marijke Drogt had even less sympathy, describing the rioting as “a carnival of crime” carried out by people who enjoyed it, and not all teenagers by any means. “It is terrible, but for many of these people fighting with the riot police is the perfect evening’s escape.”
In such views lies deep social commentary. However, it’s instructive to keep them in mind when scanning the thousands of mobile phone images grabbed from the street in Rotterdam in particular.
One memorable shot showed a lone police car that had turned down a side street only to be blocked by protesters. A metal pole holding a street sign was smashed clear through its windscreen, and the door swung open where the driver had clearly run for his or her life.
It was in such circumstances, says the police union, that live shots were fired “on several occasions” where officers believed lives were in danger. Such shots are usually fired at protesters’ legs. Four people were injured.
Minister for justice, Ferd Grapperhaus, says the rioting was organised, in some cases “very well organised”. And although “minors” were much in evidence, the trouble also involved “organised groups of adults”. In a country with a thriving criminal underbelly, the possibilities are endless.
Meanwhile, hospitals and healthcare professionals continue to struggle this weekend. More than 23,000 new infections were logged in 24 hours on Tuesday, with 488 of the country’s 1,050 intensive care beds occupied by unvaccinated Covid-19 patients, posing a huge ethical quandary for government, hospitals and wider Dutch society.