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As Coronavirus Surges, Chastened Dutch Wonder, ‘What Happened to Us?’

AMSTERDAM — As coronavirus cases have shot through the roof, waiting times for tests and results have grown so lengthy that the health authorities have considered sending samples to labs in Abu Dhabi. Contact tracing, divided among 25 competing contractors, has never gotten off the ground.

After months of discouraging the use of masks, saying they promote a false sense of security, the government just did an about face, calling for them to be worn in all public spaces.

And topping it all off, the royal family, ignoring the government’s advice to travel as little as possible, flew off to their luxurious holiday home in Greece, adding to growing mistrust and resentment at home.

Britain? Spain? No. It’s the Netherlands, one of Europe’s wealthiest countries, renowned for its efficient and organized government in most circumstances — but not, apparently, in the pandemic.

The infection numbers keep rising, to a record 10,346 new cases on Monday in a country of 17 million people — one-19th the size of the United States, which is reporting in the neighborhood of 75,000 new cases a day. And it is hard to keep track of the true toll, with the country’s official data incomplete because of technical errors.

Last week, new coronavirus patients had to be transferred by helicopter to Germany to relieve Dutch intensive-care units.

After weeks of taking incremental steps to curb the spread of the virus, the government announced Oct. 14 that, in addition to the new rules on face masks, all bars and restaurants would close for at least four weeks. With infections still rising, the authorities are considering establishing an evening curfew to keep people indoors, or even a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown.

For the Dutch, who generally regard their country as one of the best run in the world — with at times an undertone of superiority — the level of institutional chaos has been a hard reckoning.

“It’s shocking really. I always thought we were one of the best countries in the world, best organized,” said Rob Elgersma, 18, an agriculture student. “But now, they have the ability to fix things but can’t get their act together. What happened to us?”

That’s a question a lot of Dutch people are asking right now.

When a country runs as smoothly as the Netherlands, even the smallest disturbance becomes a nuisance. If a train arrives two minutes late, passengers become annoyed. For a cyclist to wander slightly out of the designated lane is to invite a chorus of curses from others. And if anything beyond the control of the individual should go wrong, it’s the authorities who are to blame.

In contrast to many, if not most, Western democracies today, most Dutch people still have faith in their leaders, who are called “bestuurders,” which translates best as “managers.” Critics say they live up to that title in the “poldermodel”: a system of subjecting every major decision to review by every institution, representative or even individual involved.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte is widely acknowledged as a master of the process, which works fine under normal circumstances but can be a prescription for disaster during a crisis.

“We are not a country where top-down leadership is much appreciated,” said Alexander Rinnooy Kan, a former member of the Dutch Senate. “Everything is done based on consensus.”

Mr. Rinnooy Kan spent most of his career aligning the interests of different institutions, a system that he says has served the Netherlands well on many occasions. “But it is a time-consuming process and has made us poorly positioned to deal with a demanding crisis such as this one,” he said.

The Dutch culturally value the individual. They raise their children from an early age to be independent, critical thinkers, even sometimes dropping them in the forest without adults on summer nights and telling them to find their way home.

But the individual approach to strict social distancing measures in a pandemic works only when everyone acts together as a collective. And they did at first, going along with an “intelligent lockdown” in which bars and restaurants were closed but other shops remained open and people were free to move about as they pleased, while observing social distancing rules.

Nevertheless, the Netherlands was hard hit by the first wave. The Dutch statistical organization, the C.B.S., calculated that 10,000 people have died in the country because of the virus — more than in Sweden, even taking account of the population difference.

The lockdown was lifted in June after the first wave subsided, and people returned to bars, parks, beaches and restaurants with a vengeance, paying little heed to social distancing rules.

Mr. Rutte continues to reiterate that the Netherlands is a “mature democracy, home to proud adults,” and urges people to adhere to the rules if they want the numbers to go down. But compliance has been spotty, and for now only nine other countries outpace the Netherlands’ 56 globally.

“This has obviously been a colossal political miscalculation,” said Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a popular Dutch novelist who lives in Genoa, Italy. “Everybody does as they like and are free to decide themselves. Even positive patients in the Netherlands aren’t ordered to stay indoors. This is absolutely bonkers. In Italy, you’ll be thrown in jail.”

With the virus now raging, opinion polls show that a majority favors reimposing a full lockdown.

But Mr. Rinnooy Kan said that taking charge on that level was difficult for any politician in the Netherlands. “There are so many competing interests vying for attention,” he said, “and there is very little patience for blanket measures.”

As in the United States and other lagging countries, the governmental chaos surrounding the virus response has provided fertile ground for a coterie of conspiracy theorists, pseudo scientists and concerned citizens who feel that the pandemic is being used as an excuse to deprive people of their rights.

“First, they played down the virus. Then they said there was a shortage of medical face masks, followed by a shortage of medicine,” said Willem Engel, who leads a group called Virus Waarheid, or “Virus Truth.” “They use measures that don’t work.”

“All those things make me think there is something else behind this,” he said. “It can’t just be mismanagement. I don’t believe that.”

Perhaps hubris is a better way to explain the failed policy, said the journalist Addie Schulte, who wrote an opinion article in the leading NRC Handelsblad newspaper, arguing that the governmental disorganization and incompetence laid bare by the pandemic also revealed a blind spot among the Dutch elite.

“Simply put,” he said, “we haven’t been able to manage even the most basic services, and allowed this crisis to get out of hand.”

Rosanne Kropman contributed reporting.

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