[Column] The flying Dutchman

Columnist Vishal Onkhar flew back to the Netherlands after having had to spend months in India. The pandemic has to be taken seriously, he thinks, but why are some so callous?

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Vacation season is drawing to a close and airports are teeming once more with holidaymakers loath to return home. For some, corona feels like a distant dream that is easily shaken off with a trip down to the Amalfi Coast or the French Riviera. Or perhaps with a wild party full of revelry and indulgence. But for many, a fear of the pandemic still hangs heavy over their heads, making them wary of mingling with crowds, and effecting lasting changes in their lifestyle. The countless people still opting to stay at home while limiting their travel and social interaction to within their locality represent this end of the spectrum. This perplexing dichotomy within people’s responses to the virus is certainly not unique to the Netherlands or its residents, but it begs the question of what exactly it is about the human condition that breeds good sense in some but callousness in others.

Upon contemplation, it seems to me that the root of the matter lies in a familiarity with loss. Circumstantial evidence of this is found in debates on the use of face masks – those in favour often recount heartbreaking stories of losing a loved one to corona, while the same is seldom heard from anti-maskers. Further, interviews of people at packed public spaces such as beaches usually go one of five ways – with them downplaying the seriousness of the virus, claiming that their risk of exposure is minimal, pointing out that the government has not imposed a ban, saying that they are naturally more resistant to diseases than others, or mentioning that due to their youth, corona is unlikely to kill them. These aren’t just funny compilations one stumbles across on YouTube on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Odds are, these are very same arguments we use to justify our summer break abroad or our week of sunbathing in Scheveningen, and which stem from an oversight of the consequences of our actions.

‘The promise of a safer future is worth the price of a skipped exotic vacation’

I think it is safe to assume that people who are in contact with and who stand to lose those dear to them like elderly parents, grandparents, ailing friends or relatives, are less likely to partake in such careless activities during these times, in spite of the excuses listed earlier. So, it appears that even an awareness of one’s own interpersonal ties and the stakes that go with them may be sufficient to deter us from taking needless risks, especially when safer recreational alternatives are available, and often, in our vicinity. Perhaps we may even benefit from frequent but mindful reminders of this delicate issue, such as via more public signboards sporting the message, ‘1,5 meter kan je mama’s life saven’ (introduced by the municipality of Amsterdam), or something else along those lines in English as we surf the internet looking for the best deals for our next weekend getaway.

To say that the past few months have been rough is a gross understatement, and now that we are on the cusp of a second wave, it is entirely natural that people should want to seek an avenue of escape before things go awry again. But, as somebody who only recently flew back from India to the Netherlands for work, I think I can say with some authority that although the latter has had it bad so far, it has not tasted just how sharply things can take a turn for the worse. Navigating cramped airports, as people repeatedly flout social distancing rules and the Indian government scrambles to contain the virus and trace contacts is a truly harrowing experience, one that I do not wish upon the inhabitants of any country. The knowledge that you are trapped in a place that may foreshadow the next outbreak really changes your perspective of the pandemic. To conclude, I think we can all agree that with a vaccine hopefully just around the corner, the promise of a safer future is worth the price of a skipped exotic vacation.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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