When the Dutch central bank forecast last week that the economy will rebound “strongly and smoothly” to pre-Covid growth by early next year, the OECD added a timely reminder that there was a unique opportunity to tackle entrenched inequalities – rather than revert to society-as-usual.
While the Netherlands may have had the “fiscal buffers” to absorb the shock of the pandemic – as infamously noted by finance minister Wopke Hoekstra at bad-tempered EU talks last year – what member states now have in common is that society-as-usual seems like a distant memory.
The central bank’s analysis is based on the progress of the Dutch vaccination programme and the measurable degree to which it’s allowing restrictions to be phased out. It doesn’t factor in new threats in the form of new virus variants that could stall or halt that progress, an absence that could be seen as something of a hostage to fortune.
The effect of its analysis has been to boost market sentiment and consumer confidence. So suddenly, less optimistic forecasts based, of course, on older less optimistic data, are being overtaken – and all the talk, happily, is of growth and recovery.
“The economy’s ability to adapt would appear to be greater than previously thought”, said the central bank’s director, Olaf Sleijpen, “while world trade is also performing better than expected.”
The truth, however, is that cause and effect in an unpredictable world are not that easily matched.
“Even now, it’s very difficult to be precise about whether the economic impact of the pandemic has actually caused a structural problem in a particular sector or has simply underlined and highlighted it”, Mieke Ripkin of the business association, MKB, told The Irish Times.
Government support has kept unemployment artificially stable during the crisis by paying 85 per cent of salaries while employers contribute the balance, and that’s also hidden the degree to which real change will emerge on the other side.
“Some sectors, such as events, have been closed since the start and may have to adapt to a new reality when they re-open. Other sectors such as bars and restaurants are coping with a temporary problem and already returning to normal.”
Now is the time, says Ripkin, for the state to focus on retraining, particularly for technical skills.
“Society is changing. The labour market and the way we work are changing. Some jobs are disappearing. The rest are being transformed by digital technology or the demands of a greener economy. Yes, much of that was happening before coronavirus – but it’s much faster now.”
Last week’s OECD commentary on the Netherlands ranged across that changing society recommending action to fix its housing shortage, cheaper childcare so that both parents can work if they wish to, and changes to school hours so that those same parents can collect their children later.
But in Europe’s most densely populated country, where some 27,000 people have died of coronavirus and an emergency overnight curfew led to the type of violent social dissent not been seen for decades, there’s an almost palpable feeling that the past 18 months are already old news.
Except in the Netherlands’ hospitals, where, delighted though they are that the total number of Covid patients on their wards is plummeting towards 500, staff – many of whom are struggling with stress and exhaustion – remain wary of new Covid-19 variants and residual long-term problems.
For instance, The Irish Times spoke to the leaders of two research projects, one into paediatric long Covid at Amsterdam university hospital and the other at Groningen university hospital into the effectiveness of vaccines in the case of cancer patients having chemotherapy or immunotherapy.
In the case of the former, although the numbers identified were small – 300 to 400 children across the Netherlands aged from two to 18 – the impact can be serious, according to research leader, Dr Caroline Brackel, who says the condition demands greater international awareness.
“The most common complaint was fatigue in 87 per cent, followed by shortness of breath, some memory loss, and what was described as ‘brain fog’ in a small number.
“In terms of impact on lifestyles, 48 per cent said they could go to school, for example, but felt excessively tired, while 36 per cent said they could not – so early detection is hugely beneficial.”
The Groningen research is related to growing evidence that people with weakened immune systems – perhaps as many as 50,000 in the Netherlands – may need three of four vaccine doses before they’re adequately protected.
That possibility is being tested on 500 cancer patients by Prof Elizabeth De Vries, who says the response to the vaccination could depend a patient’s age, strain of cancer or type of therapy. “We’re currently analysing the results up to Day 28 after the second Moderna vaccination”, she said.
Another swathe of coronavirus restrictions will be lifted in the Netherlands next Saturday, including a removal of the requirement to wear face masks – except on public transport and at airports. But coronavirus has not been beaten; it’s settling into the background fabric of our lives.