Blog: Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The key to a better approach to the corona pandemic lies in recognising the specific responsibilities of science, government and civil society organisations, according to Prof. Henk de Vries in the spirit of former Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Henk de Vries is professor of standardisation management at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). He says that if Abraham Kuyper had lived now, he would have ‘architectural criticism’ of the Dutch approach as ‘too much is mixed up now’. Professor De Vries zooms in on the specific roles of science, government and social organisations in this opinion blog.


Fighting the virus is only possible on the basis of insight into how the virus spreads. This is the field of virologists. Fortunately, we have this expertise in the Netherlands. Good scientists cannot be influenced. Their statements must be demonstrably correct. The latter explains the initial reluctance of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) to be certain about how the virus behaves. Diffusion via aerosols (tiny droplets) was difficult to demonstrate, but it already provided an explanation for massive contamination among people who had been in the same enclosed space at the same time. This method of distribution is now recognised by more and more virologists. But the RIVM is not yet convinced and reports on its website: “If they play a role in the spread, then this is a less important distribution route than the larger droplets.”

This statement is critical, because the control method depends on it: the ‘keep 1.5 metre distance’ measure in the Netherlands is to decrease the chance of the larger droplets spreading, but for aerosols the indoor air quality and humidity are essential. For this, the RIVM refers to the Building Decree (building regulations). But this is intended for living comfort in newly built homes, not for health and certainly not for the Covid-19 situation. Here, RIVM lacks the expertise of the disciplines of air treatment and ventilation technology – these are also necessary to provide good advice.

If they play a role in the spread, then this is a less important distribution route than the larger droplets.

Missing expertise

The Dutch government is advised by scientists in the RIVM’s Outbreak Management Team (OMT). But there is many expertise lacking, for example from mathematicians. Most people get infected at home, the numbers say. This can be explained in the first place because contamination at home is easier to detect than contamination elsewhere, for example on the street or in the supermarket. Then: the first infected housemate contracted the virus elsewhere and that other place is more important to combat. Or the place that was before it. In short, there is bias in the figures, which is why wrong advice is given. Even worse, some numbers are being withheld. There are infections ‘at work’ – what work? We know there have been a few outbreaks of Covid-19 at slaughterhouses, but which other working environments? This is known from source and contact research. Provide a statistician with this information and have him combine it with all kinds of other information about the location of the infection. Then put statisticians and virologists together and superior insights emerge about the spread of the virus.



For the directing role, the government uses the ‘corona dashboard’. Most of the numbers on this dashboard are several days old. So it is more of a rear view mirror. A driver sometimes has to make use of both, but above all must look ahead and anticipate when necessary. Collaboration between policymakers and scientists in the OMT has since acquired its own dynamics, blurring the clear boundaries between science and policy. Then choices are presented as if they are substantiated when they are not, or only partially, and other choices are not made because there is insufficient evidence. Politicians hide behind scientists and try to justify their policies. They sometimes provide incomplete or even incorrect information to the House of Representatives, the press and the public. This damages the mutual trust that is essential to combat the crisis in co-operation between all sections of society.


Civil society

The Netherlands has branch organisations for all kinds of companies and partnerships of all kinds of social organisations. Many of these national organisations have developed their own corona protocols, in which they make general government requirements specific to their organisation. That is a good thing and makes the Netherlands stand out more positively compared to many other countries. This makes it easier for companies and other organisations to take the necessary measures. But they don't always do that.

In a study, I showed that customisation is necessary and possible. Unfortunately, organisations have not been given enough space for this. That evokes incomprehension. Partly as a result of this, the branch organisations have started to act as lobbyists who demand continuity for their sector without feeling responsible for public health. The government is listening to some of their lobbyists. As a result, on the one hand, the continuation of contamination is legitimized in the sense that sectors such as education, stores, aviation and professional football get permission to continue activities though cases of contamination show that this is not fully safe), while on the other hand our research in the cultural sector shows that many organisations and people are unnecessarily hindered because they are not allowed to do what is safe – but this applies to individual organisations rather than to certain general categories, the differences are huge.


The way forward?

The corona measures are directed to the individual citizen. British psychologists have determined that it is more effective to address groups, e.g. families or friends. This is one of the things Kuyper knew already. It is better to hold groups accountable for their joint responsibility and to emphasize the public interest.

The government must do less. Civil society organisations also have a share. Organisations in the same sector can collaborate in making protocols in which they translate general government guidelines into the practice of their sector. And if those government guidelines fall short, such as in the field of air quality, they supplement them themselves. There really should be no infections. It’s a form of self-regulation. Subsequently, educational institutions, companies and cultural institutions work out how they can open safely. They communicate this via the website, social media and outside and inside the building – this way it becomes visible and verifiable how they take their responsibility. The government should take control on social distancing in the street and in public transport – in a way that is advised by logistics experts and virologists. H.J. (Henk) de Vries
Endowed Professor of Standardisation Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Henk de Vries

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