The initial findings of the research into the social impact of COVID-19 have now been released. First, there was the report on Rotterdam, and now the report on The Hague is out, too. The results are not particularly uplifting. What’s noticeable is that you started this research incredibly quickly. The first survey dates from the 6th of April, just after the lockdown had been announced. Did you know straightaway: We have to do something about this?

“I’m from the post-war period, so I’ve never seen anything like this before. We all saw the images of New York, Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the news. The great metropolises – the economic and social machines of our world – looked completely deserted. We are witnessing a society come to a complete standstill in a number of areas. How does that effect people? Is it true that the disparities between groups are being magnified, and subsequently inequality is on the rise? Do people trust each other, or are social tensions intensifying? What about anxiety and stress? We also saw heart-warming examples of people who came to each other’s aid. But what really happened in terms of solidarity and reciprocity? This is what we wanted to measure right away.”

You surveyed almost seven thousand Dutch people, including 1,500 Rotterdammers. What is the picture that surfaces?

“The title of the report on Rotterdam is ‘De Bedreigde Stad’ (The Threatened City). The report on The Hague is called ‘‘Berichten uit een Stille Stad’ (Messages from a Silent City). These are the two metaphors that I feel are relevant. You see a threat to economic and social life. I am shocked by how much people fear losing their job in the near future. The government is currently coming to the rescue with unprecedented support packages, but a large number of social groups are still worried about losing income and work. These are in part the vulnerable groups where this was to be expected, but also includes many self-employed people, freelancers and young people with zero-hour contracts. Moreover, it is striking how many people are experiencing anxiety and stress. We already have a society in which a lot of people suffer from anxiety disorders and burn-out symptoms. This is being amplified by the pandemic.”

In Rotterdam, a quarter of the population say they are more anxious than normal. One in five feels powerless.

“Yes. That’s another early finding. The Hague study, done a few weeks later, shows that this has worsened, especially among young people. In The Hague, 30 percent feel anxious more often, 36 percent feel more nervous and 43 percent find it more difficult to relax. Then there are those who struggle with feelings of not having anything to look forward to – that’s 40 percent.”

And that’s not normally the case?

“Exactly. This is data from a survey, so it is superficial on a certain level. The question is: What’s behind those numbers? If I have to interpret this as a sociologist, I would say that it has to do with a loss of economic perspective and the disappearance of jobs and income. Can I still pay my rent? Can I still move to a more expensive house? It is also related to the breakdown of the structures that underpin day-to-day co-existence: How do you shape societal relationships? People worry about their loved ones – their grandparents, their parents, their children. You see that a fearful society is emerging.”

“Incidentally, there is also some good news. We see that confidence is high in fellow citizens, healthcare institutions and the government. The Netherlands is a high-trust society. Collective solidarity has increased. The big question is whether this will continue if it all lasts a while longer and we end up in a recession. How sustainable then is that level of endurance – or resilience as many policymakers like to call it? American research into the impact of natural disasters, such as heatwaves and Hurricane Katrina, tells us that the social fabric can easily fray. Tensions rise, the atmosphere becomes grimmer and polarisation sets in. You can already see it happening now. That’s why we keep repeating these surveys three or four times a year.”

The research shows that disparities between groups are increasing. Along which routes does this inequality manifest itself?

“To some extent, we are seeing the classic picture. People who are most worried are poorly educated, dependent on benefits and in poor health. But there are also groups experiencing stress that you would not expect. People with above-average incomes, highly educated young people. In recent years, I myself have published articles about the middle class on behalf of the WRR (Dutch Advisory Council on Government Policy). It was thought that they were at risk. But our finding at the time was that they will manage. We have to reconsider that now.”

What do we learn from this?

“First of all, you see the repercussions of a very flexible labour market. With two million temporary workers and more than one million people who are self-employed, it is the most flexible workforce in Western Europe. It has been said for some time that the level of social protection is too low for these groups. This debate is now extremely topical.

“I’ve done a lot of research myself on migrant workers, for example, on those from Eastern Europe. We have known for a long time that people sometimes work under substandard conditions. It is only when things go wrong like they did recently in an abattoir (where there were corona outbreaks, ed.) that we intervene.”

“Aside from that, we do see that too many cutbacks have been made in the public domain. For example, this is also the case for the labour market activation policy, as it is called, which features various ways of assisting people to find work. That needs to be expanded again.”

“You also see that much larger issues concerning globalisation or dependence on countries like China are now suddenly on the agenda. This pandemic exposes a number of fundamental vulnerabilities in our systems. We’ve been ignoring all those things for far too long I think.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

You report with a certain degree of detachment and do not make any policy recommendations in these publications. Still, I can imagine that you are itching to take action. Am I talking to a concerned professor of sociology?

“Yes, you are. But one of the reasons I wanted to embark on this research is because I was starting to have a little trouble with all the seers and prophets who, right from the outset of the corona crisis, have been advocating for a new, green and equal world. Everyone got on their hobbyhorse: More energy transition, more protectionism or indeed even the end of capitalism! Also, in my own field of sociology, there are repentant preachers who lambast the world from the university pulpit and proclaim a new doctrine of redemption. You have to watch out for that. If we make very drastic political choices at this early stage and do not support some companies because they are not sufficiently sustainable, for example, the economy will be hit too hard. In the meantime, of course, we have to start thinking about how to tackle the vulnerabilities within our systems.”

Your research also shows that there is a relatively high level of confidence in institutions, such as the government and even the RIVM (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment). It seems we have almost forgotten that less than a year ago, the RIVM was almost publicly lynched by protesting farmers. Is this good news that people are regaining their trust in science?

“Science has come under heavy fire over the past ten years. Things are different now. You could almost say that we have turned from a democracy into a technocracy, with an Outbreak Management Team full of experts who largely determine policy. You see many virologists speaking out in public, and many economists and psychiatrists as well. I find the latter somewhat troubling, by the way.”

Why? Surely these cases of anxiety and insecurity are a major problem?

“Definitely. It’s just a matter of how to address that angst. There’s a kind of psychologisation happening when it comes to notions of resilience and self-reliance, although a significant part of civic insecurity is caused by clearly demonstrable socioeconomic factors. You have to get to the root of the problem and build up solid institutions that restore people’s trust. Things such as job security, a social safety net and opportunities for retraining. Take, for example, the hospitality, tourism or cultural sectors. A lot of jobs are not going to come back there. These people need to be supported in one way or another in finding alternative employment. This is the right time to invest in a society that is truly committed to lifelong learning.”

Does this crisis mark the end of a period during which the government has taken a hands-off approach to many issues?

“You’re clearly seeing a return of government. We’ve had confidence in the market for a very long time. Moreover, with the advent of the participatory society, civic society has got on board. Government will intervene more firmly in a number of areas. At the same time, we have to preserve the beneficial aspects of this participatory society. We know that we neglected the welfare state in the 1980s and 1990s. It will be a matter of trying to find a new balance between government, the market and civic society.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

How much confidence do you have in the government?

“I think they are doing pretty well. If we evaluate things soon, we will undoubtedly come across some mistakes. But the way in which assurances and support are being provided now is very important to me. The moderate lockdown and its scaling down also really suited our society. I do think, however, that a few more risks can be taken in the meantime. It’s high time we got back to work; don’t you think?”

Godfried Engbersen is Professor of Sociology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). He conducts research into social inequality, labour migration and urban social problems. He is a member of the Scientific Council of Government Policy. This spring, Engbersen started research into the social impact of COVID-19, together with colleagues from the VU Amsterdam, The Hague University of Applied Sciences and the municipalities of Rotterdam and The Hague.