Rutte government lifts COVID-19 measures in the Netherlands as infections rise

Over the two years of the pandemic, the pseudo-scientific policy of herd immunity coupled with the impact of three decades of austerity has devastated the chronically underfunded and understaffed Dutch public health system.

Healthcare workers wait for an ambulance to arrive at Bernhoven Hospital in Uden, southern Netherlands, Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government eased public health measures on February 25, although the official number of daily COVID-19 infections fluctuates between 35,000 and 50,000 with thousands hospitalized each day. In two years, in a country of 17.6 million inhabitants, 7.6 million people have been officially infected with COVID-19. There were well over 32,000 deaths between March 2020 and September 2021 alone, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).

In addition to the increase in hospitalizations related to COVID-19, the public health system is working to “catch up with the more than 110,000 operations that have been postponed due to the pandemic”. From Telegraaf writing. He adds that “the largest backlog of postponed operations is in orthopaedics: 50,000 Dutch people are waiting for hip or knee replacement surgery. Before the pandemic, that number was 10,000. Additionally, thoracic surgeons said a total of 2,300 heart patients were waiting, 1,300 more than before the pandemic. There are also backlogs in urology, plastic surgery and gynecology.

Beyond the growing number of COVID-19 patients and the backlog of other patients, the RIVM (Netherlands Institute for Public Health and the Environment) estimates that around 238,000 healthcare workers (out of a total of 592,000) have been infected with the coronavirus. Thousands of them are reporting symptoms of burnout, PTSD or Long COVID; many of them have lost or quit their jobs, while those who remain are suffering from the continued impact of the pandemic and an unprecedented workload.

In early March, staff shortages in the Dutch healthcare system reached a peak. Hospitals in Noord-Brabant have told their staff who tested positive for COVID-19 to stay at work. Thus, “they are trying to prevent surgeries and other treatments from being postponed due to staff shortages,” said Bart Berden of the province’s acute care consultation (ROAZ). Omroep Brabant.

Berden continued: “[W]We are seeing a huge amount of coronavirus infections, without people showing many symptoms. It now looks more like the flu than the coronavirus as we knew it two years ago. To ensure that we as hospitals can continue to provide good care, we will now also approach it more like the flu.

We must oppose this pseudo-scientific call to “work with COVID” and therefore spread the virus to colleagues. This brings infected hospital staff into contact with uninfected staff and with patients with underlying critical conditions, creating the conditions for mass contagion ending in public health catastrophe.

This continues the politically criminal policies of the previous Rutte government at the start of the pandemic. On February 24, reported that thanks to a Open Government Act request, thousands of emails between the RIVM management team and the previous Rutte government in 2020 had come to light. These show that the RIVM alerted the government, which nevertheless downplayed the significance of the pandemic in its public statements.

According to the information now available, on February 9, 2020, the alarm bell rang at the RIVM. An “intervention team” would have been set up to estimate the number of victims and the consequences of the pandemic in the Netherlands. It classified an “outbreak” of nCoV (novel coronavirus) as a “severe to catastrophic” threat to public safety. A researcher emailed his superiors, warning them of a “catastrophic” scenario with more than 10,000 deaths and “societal disruption”.

Nonetheless, the Dutch government has been among the most stubborn in Europe to oppose public health measures aimed at halting the spread of the virus.

In this context, the case of the 52-year-old paramedic, Lenny Wagemans, has been publicized. On February 19, Lenny said RTL News that she was exposed to COVID-19 in March 2020 during an ambulance ride with two of her colleagues. She helped a man struggling with shortness of breath, not even wearing a face mask because it was “not yet” standard procedure at this stage of the pandemic, she explained. The Netherlands was one of the last European countries to introduce mitigation measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Now at least five more Dutch healthcare workers are suing their employers for the emotional and financial damage caused by infection in the workplace and the effects of Long COVID. It comes as tens of thousands of public health workers around the world come out and strike, most recently in Turkey, Sri Lanka and Australia.

In New South Wales (NSW), Australia’s most populous state, nurses and midwives are battling longstanding staffing shortages, falling wages and poor working conditions intolerable aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. In New Zealand, after 10,000 Allied public health workers voted overwhelmingly for a two-day, 24-hour strike, a last-minute “extraordinary” decision by the New Zealand Labor Court banned the strike, declaring that all strike activity was illegal.

In Turkey, doctors staged a national strike this month after a nationwide health care strike in February, as inflation slashed their salaries and official indifference to mass infections caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Turkey.

In Sri Lanka, nurses, paramedics, public health inspectors, medical laboratory technologists and pharmacists are leading a nationwide strike with urgent demands, despite the government’s strike ban. Their demands include the rectification of wage anomalies, higher transportation and custodial allowances, increased overtime rates and improved promotion procedures.

Around the world, the union bureaucracies that have played a key role in enforcing state policies and blocking working class opposition to the politically criminal policies of capitalist governments that are now working to derail and sabotage health strikes.

In the Netherlands, the largest trade union confederation, the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), is working hand in hand with the ruling class and the Dutch political establishment to impose austerity, minimize the risk and human cost of pandemic and sell off health strikes. These strikes have drawn increasing attention since the first-ever nationwide strike in 2019.

According to FNV sources themselves, in January 2022 alone, more than 500 healthcare workers faced losing their jobs due to the long COVID. According to another union source, at least 1,850 healthcare workers contacted an FNV hotline for the issue which was opened in December 2021.

The union claimed healthcare workers were suing the state and criticizing senior officials “to underscore their role and responsibility”.

In reality, workers in health care and other industries aim to hold state officials implicated in right-wing herd immunity policies legally, financially and politically accountable. The policy of “living and working with the virus”, which has claimed nearly 2 million lives across Europe, has hit no part of the working class harder than healthcare workers. The mobilization of healthcare workers in the Netherlands and around the world is at the heart of a struggle to mobilize the working class to demand science-based health policy to end the massive death and suffering of the pandemic.

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