One rarely hears from trade unions in the Netherlands. But when they came together the other day to demand a €150 million fund to help sufferers of long Covid, they appeared to have fresh purpose, new relevance perhaps for the post-Covid age. Or maybe not.
On the face of it, the idea was not a bad one. It certainly fired the opening shots in a row that's gaining traction across Europe about what governments should have done differently – and the extent to which they may unwittingly have put frontline workers unnecessarily in harm's way.
That’s the fundamental argument from the unions: that Mark Rutte’s government should have ensured that healthcare workers had adequate protective equipment, while schools and daycare centres should have been properly ventilated.
Rutte would undoubtedly respond that in dealing with a rapidly mutating new virus, they did the very best possible. Protective equipment was notoriously hard to source. The scale and cost of ventilating every classroom in the land was daunting.
From there on, however, the issues become more difficult. Government experts were simply wrong in some important instances – and knowing that this was always going to be possible, teachers and healthcare workers, in particular, were expected to “hero-up” and accept the risks.
In the early stages of the pandemic, for example, the public health institute ruled that healthcare workers didn’t need to wear a protective mask unless a new patient had been confirmed as Covid-infected. In fact, wearing one was actively discouraged.
As far as teachers were concerned, recalls Kitty Jong, deputy chairwoman of the FNV trade union confederation, there was a period where they were being told by government experts that children were simply not infectious – and that they could come and go, from work to home, with no heightened risk.
“Many teachers and healthcare workers became infected at work because they weren’t being properly safeguarded,” says Jong. “Some were laid off because they couldn’t return to work after two years of illness. Others can’t cope with the psychological impact. They deserve recognition.”
Times have changed in Dutch industrial relations, and so the unions are not saying they’ll strike unless the government agrees to some form of compensation fund.
What they’re saying is that in the background they’re preparing a legal action. Rather than hurt their own members further, their message to the government is: See you in court.
The big problem about long Covid, however, is not that the right person hasn't been blamed yet, it's that the scale of the condition – described by the World Health Organisation as "a pandemic within a pandemic" – may still be hugely underestimated.
As demob-happy passengers joined airport chaos devoid of any precautions over Easter, nobody, it seems, wanted to hear that long Covid can be seriously debilitating and long-lasting, and even affect cognitive functions.
Likewise with governments. "Despite the fact that countries are trying to get back on their feet economically, most seriously underestimate the potential impact of long Covid at the level of the workforce", says Ann Li, chairwoman of the patient association network, Long Covid Europe.
As to its scale, the WHO estimates that 10-20 per cent of sufferers still have “a variety of symptoms” after they “recover” from Covid.
Luxembourg Institute of Health found that six out of 10 people who get Covid-19 still have a least one symptom a year later.
A study led by Imperial College London suggested that, statistically, two million people in England alone are likely to have persistent symptoms, with women, smokers, the overweight, and those from deprived areas, among the worst affected.
So leaving aside the politics of the putative Dutch long Covid fund, the problem is likely to be that €150 million won’t be nearly enough cash to cover the cost of the condition.
Then there’s the twin facts that the Dutch government already needs about €15 billion to plug a “black hole” in the public finances when the spring budget is published on June 1st – and that economic growth slowed to zero per cent between January and March.
Then there’s the endless potential for rows over what is or is not long Covid. Breathing difficulties? Depression? Fatigue? Trouble sleeping? Even in court this could take forever.
It might have been a better idea to attempt to establish the scale of the problem first. However, as Ann Li says about long Covid, everyone is talking about it – but nobody is listening.