[Column] In a little while

Never before was his life at so much risk, Menno Blaauw realises. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Menno Blaauw: “Dat zijn taalfouten, naar mijn mening.” (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

If you are going to do something in the Netherlands that involves risk, you will have to deal with rules. If the new activity is going to lead to less than one in a million deaths per year, that’s OK. From there up to one in 10,000, you have to do your best to reduce the risks and you need a permit. Above one in 10,000, your plan is too dangerous and you won’t get a permit.

I estimate my own chance of dying from the coronavirus in the next year at one in a hundred. So, by our Dutch standards, that’s an extremely high risk. I’ve never run such a risk before in my life. And I’m powerless.

It’s not the fault of Delft University of Technology – it is behaving commendably in the corona crisis. The Executive Board has always taken measures that were one step ahead of Government guidelines, and it has always been right. No one will ever be able to say that we underestimated the risk, or did too little about it. The only thing I miss are figures about the virus on campus: how many of us are sick; how many have recovered; how many are on ventilators?

‘We do need a steady flow of patients’

Since 16 March, through Prime Minister Rutte, we have known that the Government’s approach is to develop immunity in ‘a large part’ of the Dutch population in a maximally controlled way, taking into account the capacity of the health care system. The alternatives are less attractive to society. In a little while, when we have achieved group immunity, the chance of one patient infecting another will be smaller than one and we will live normal lives again. Each new outbreak will quickly die out. We will have an advantage over countries that have kept the number of infections small with military force and lockdowns. As a group we will be invulnerable, the borders will open again, and we will be welcome in other countries.

In a little while. In a few months, or a year. Or so.

At the moment, the flow of new patients is quite stable, and hopefully just enough to fill the intensive care beds. We dont want to have to refuse care to people with lower survival probabilities because of a lack of capacity. We do need a steady flow of patients, otherwise it will take years to achieve group immunity. That’s why, the more ventilators, the better. Kudos for those who focus on this!

‘A large part’ means, in my opinion, more than half the Dutch population, and that also means more than half our rather grey-haired TU Delft staff. Approximately one-sixth of those who catch the virus become seriously ill and need ventilators, so I gather from the WHO statistics. Half of them die, depending on their age. I estimate my own probability of dying in the coming months at 1%, because I’m almost 60 years old.

Strangely enough, this powerlessness gives me peace. Resignation takes hold of me and at the same time I have enough energy to act strategically. I’ve written an ‘After Im dead’ document for my workplace and a farewell letter to my son. I bought a life insurance policy so he wont be in need. Those sorts of things. Because once you get sick, you will run out of energy and you’ll be confused.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. It never meant more to me in my life.

Dr Menno Blaauw is IMS manager at the Reactor Institute, after 20 years as a scientist there. He is also a member of the Works Council.

Menno Blaauw / Columnist

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