Governments are facing a number of tough choices right now: how do you support the economy while balancing the budget? And what is the best approach to take post-corona? Start throwing money around and hope that it lands in the right place? Or do you take the Dutch polder approach and consult, discuss, and negotiate until you reach a consensus? Either of these options would be a missed opportunity, as neither is based on a clear leitmotif—a concept that is lacking altogether in the current public debate.
Most of the proposals we are seeing right now fall back on political standpoints from before the coronavirus crisis. Politicians who have always called for sustainability measures are saying that “now is the time” to invest in such efforts—the same argument used by other politicians who have always been in favor of additional funding for the healthcare sector. Such “now-isms” are really just lobbying in disguise. But more importantly, they are counterproductive.
A leitmotif would provide the direction that is needed in the recovery of our economy. The leitmotif we propose is simple: increase our resilience and focus on appropriate proximity. Resilience is needed because the coronavirus crisis will not be the last crisis. And when the next crisis does come along, it is crucial that we are better prepared to absorb the disruptions it will cause. Proximity is needed because we can no longer be dependent on far-away countries for vital products and services, and because we want to draw on the strength of local networks. We should invest in our own production capacity and stockpiles, even if—at first glance—it may seem less efficient than relying on just-in-time imports from China. We must redefine exactly what our truly essential sectors are. The policies we make should be appropriate to the Dutch context: the Netherlands has an open economy, and we need to steer clear of protectionism and autarchy. But we also need to make explicit choices when it comes to the allies we want to be dependent on, and those choices should be based on reciprocity.
The Netherlands has an outstanding IT infrastructure. With our nation-wide network of fast internet connections, we are international leaders. This not only enabled our schools and universities to shift to electronic instruction during the lockdown, but also provided us with an effective fallback for other sectors: for a lot of people, working from home has already become the new normal.
The limited amount of contact that we were able to maintain during the lockdown was with people who were literally in close proximity to us. This allowed us to preserve vital local services and facilities.
Most of us have also become acutely aware of the importance of local networks. The limited amount of contact that we were able to maintain during the lockdown was with people who were literally in close proximity to us. This allowed us to preserve vital local services and facilities.
But we have also learned from our mistakes: we saw shortages of testing materials and protective clothing, bringing home the realization that we have become overly dependent on a just-in-time economy, with suppliers all around the world. This problem has yet to be resolved. Whenever a vaccine for Covid-19 does become available, it will not be produced in the Netherlands. As a trading nation, the Netherlands is relatively well-equipped in this regard, but dependency still involves risks.
Finally, we learned that space is needed in order to maintain distance. This leads to problems in our cities, which have become more and more densely populated in recent years. The Netherlands is a small country, but there is no need for the majority of the population to be huddled together in a quarter of the total land area. Increasing population density leads to problems at the personal level as well. Nursing homes, in which many elderly people are living in close proximity to one other, have proven to be our Achilles’ heel during the corona pandemic.
Let‘s consider our infrastructure. We need to find the right balance between working remotely and at the office, and we need a transportation system that offers a large amount of space for small-scale movements. We need spacious bicycle highways and small buses more than we need new freeways or railways. We need to spread out our working times to avoid peak pressure in public transportation and on the roads.
And we need to invest even more in our IT infrastructure to eliminate the necessity of being on the road every day and ensure that people can do a lot of their work from home.
According to the Dutch government, we are facing the greatest economic crisis since World War II. In 1948, the recovery of the European economy started with the Marshall Plan. That plan also had a leitmotif: fight the threat of communism in Western Europe and promote American industry by rebuilding Europe’s infrastructure and feeding hungry mouths. The coronavirus has not destroyed our infrastructure. But we do need to take a critical look at it to see what parts we can still use. A clear leitmotif can help us make smart choices.