Wednesday 16 September 2020

An endless search for quick fixes results instead in repeated failures

The Netherlands in April during the "intelligent lockdown"
which was actually no lockdown at all.
A new record was set in the Netherlands today. 1560 new cases of Covid-19 were reported today - the highest level of new infections that we've ever had in one day. This is a higher rate of infection by some margin than any day during March and April during the first wave of the disease. The second wave of infections is truly upon us.

How did we get here ? The answer is obvious: without actually eliminating the disease, without actually ever having had a proper lockdown which could perhaps have helped to eliminate the disease, our government re-opened everything. Instead of taking this seriously, as did countries such as Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea and China (started by trying to cover it up, but have taken effective action since January), our government decided to downplay the risks from the beginning and when they were forced to take action they took minimum action for a minimum period of time.

Dutch people are now travelling to other countries on holiday, drinking in bars, eating in restaurants, going to school and university, commuting to work, and spreading the virus between themselves as if there was nothing at all to avoid. There are still some rudimentary hand washing facilities at shops, but hardly anyone wears a face mask (I do and it leads to odd looks) and people just do not keep the mandated 1.5 m distance from one-another.

What happened in the Netherlands was that instead of taking proper action to fix this issue, our government looked for a shortcut. Rather than a short and sharp lockdown to eliminate the disease locally followed by ensuring that people who visit or return from another country really do go into quarantine, international visitors are merely requested to quarantine themselves while everyone knows that most don't bother. Testing and tracing have been stretched to the breaking point so they are no longer effective.

Failure resulted from taking a shortcut. From looking for a quick fix which it was thought would allow the economy to be minimally damaged. In reality this is far from over and we can expect further damage to the economy as well as further deaths due to an inadequate response. The quick fix was anything but a fix. The countries which took effective action now have the least disruption to their economies and to lives.

The Climate
Of course it's not just on the pandemic that our policies have failed. Our environmental policy is also failing. Another record was set just yesterday: The hottest September day ever in the Netherlands.
Already two years old and we have not begun to
respond in an effective way.
Our emissions are not decreasing. We're not even slightly close to doing this. Why ? It's the same story. Instead of taking decisive action to change habits and reduce emissions we are taking a minimum change approach, which can only make a very small difference to emissions.

Instead of tackling the over-consumption which has led to climate change, people are looking for a magic way to continue with their wasteful lifestyles. Many people would rather buy a new car than consider making the changes to their lifestyle required to live car-free. Though the difference in energy usage and emissions between different powered transport modes is not large, it's easier to sell the idea of continuing a wasteful lifestyle including much international travel by switching from flying to some other slightly less polluting mode such as train travel than it is to sell the idea of travelling far less.

Instead of travelling less, we travel more and more each year by every powered mode, so even the slow growth of some slightly less polluting modes doesn't in any way "offset" the more polluting modes because they are growing as well. All this growth, whether from car, airplane, boat, bus and train, simply adds to the total emissions.

The top 10%, those with earnings over $13700 per year,
are the big polluters. We buy and throw away too much.
Unfortunately, people like to buy stuff. Buying a "green" product makes people think they've done something good, even though it is always better for the environment to reduce consumption. Buying less, not replacing goods regularly, not going on holiday, not buying new clothes when the old ones can be repaired and worn again, doesn't impress the neighbours but it does reduce emissions. Every product has a footprint. Using what you have for longer, and using it less if it's a product which consumes energy, is far more powerful than swapping to something new and certainly more effective than buying "offsets" to assuage the guilt of over-consumption.

The quick fix of buying things to try to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle, of trying to continue to live in the exact same wasteful way but with "green" products, isn't a fix at all. To reduce our footprint on the planet, to maintain a liveable climate, we need to change how we live. We need to live with less.

Building cycling infrastructure
This blog is of course mostly about cycling infrastructure. Here too we see the quick fix mentality.

This isn't exceptional, it's the normal standard. Cycle-paths
like this need to go everywhere to enable mass cycling
Very few places outside the Netherlands have even tried to build the complete grid of cycling infrastructure which we have known for 40 years is required to enable the majority to cycle. Instead, almost everywhere, there's a piecemeal approach. Small steps are taken. There's no continuity in space or in time. Not only do pieces of infrastructure not join up, but they don't necessarily last long either. An extreme example may well present itself after the covid crisis ends, or perhaps even before it ends, as we can unfortunately expect many temporary pieces of cycling infrastructure which have popped up during this period to be removed. Why ? Because they were never really a sign of genuine policy change.

With the growth in popularity of Dutch ideas around cycling, many countries are putting on a show of attempting to replicate this success but unfortunately it seems rather like cargo cult infrastructure which has a vague resemblance to what has proven to be successful in the Netherlands but with shortfalls which make it far less useful or far less safe. There are cycle-paths built far too narrow to work efficiently which give way at every side-road, and bicycle roads where the level of motor traffic is such that it will dominate and result in nothing more than a differently decorated normal road, big expectations from building a single "Dutch roundabout" in a totally different setting from the Netherlands complete with an expection of a level of safety which could not reasonably be expected if the same thing was built in the Netherlands under similar circumstances, "Dutch" style "protected intersections" in much busier settings but without the single most important aspect of the design, i.e. safety enforced by traffic light designs which totally remove conflict, so that the the same outcome surely cannot be expected, and design guidelines which look like grab-bags of good and bad practice from multiple sources. Short-cuts have been taken. None of this is the successful approach which people have seen in the Netherlands but something far more superficial.

It's also common to see praise heaped upon brand new infrastructure, rather than waiting for a proven track record of safety. That's something that we sadly see here in the Netherlands as well. In reality we can't ever know much about an individual junction's safety until we wait long enough to see what the long term safety record is, though of course immediate problems should be taken as a warning that there is a problem. Official Dutch stats about, for example, roundabout safety are based on observing hundreds of "roundabout years".

Merely swapping one kind of junction design for another won't solve many, if any problems. The Dutch success with cycling (and while this country has failed with Covid, it has done better than anywhere else with cycling) results from taking a comprehensive look at traffic across whole cities, and indeed the country. Motor traffic has been relocated to an extent which almost be comprehended elsewhere and this goes a long way to explain how cycling has been made safe and convenient in the Netherlands (at the same time, driving has never been more popular, but that's another story).

Waiting for a vaccine
While we continue to take shortcuts and opt for quick fixes instead of solving problems properly, we will continue to fail. Waiting for a vaccine can also be a position of putting off doing the needed work now in the hope that something else will remove the need to do that work in the future.

A few inadequate cycle-paths and junctions are not a vaccine which will result in people abandoning their cars en-masse and result in mass cycling. This is not new. It's been known for 40 years that a complete grid of safe go-everywhere infrastructure which keeps motor vehicles away from cyclists is required to begin to achieve that goal (luckily, it doesn't take 40 years to do the same).

Electric cars are not a vaccine for the myriad problems caused by cars just as trains are not a vaccine for the problems caused by aircraft. The best way to reduce the impact of motorized transport is to use it less. Cycling comes for free.

Negative CO2 emissions can't be relied upon to vaccinate us against climate change because this is an unproven technology which has never been scaled up to the extent that would be required. We need to change our lifestyles and reduce our emissions, quickly, leaving fossil fuel under the ground, not rely on future generations using as yet not invented technology to solve problems caused by our selfishness.

There is also as yet no vaccine for Covid-19. Many groups are doing research but until there is a vaccine we can never be sure that there ever will be one. This magic bullet against the virus won't be a quick fix either. Production will take time to ramp up and distribution will be an enormous logistical problem (IATA article: "Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft").

There is really no alternative to doing a proper job instead of opting for a quick-fix solution. Business as usual can't continue. Not for Covid, not for the climate and not for cycling either. And anyone who promises you that a vaccine will solve everything in a few weeks time is a liar or a fool.

Just after this post went live, five days ago, the main news here in the Netherlands was that both Belgium and Germany, our closest neighbours, had taken measures against travel to and from the most infected parts of the Netherlands. Non-essential travel is forbidden, but it leaves open the question of who defines what is "essential" ? One of the problems that we've had this whole time is that people will continue to travel, continue to spread the virus because far too many people think they are the exception to the rule.

Five days later we now have a new record infection rate. Over 2200 people tested positive for covid 19 over the last 24 hour period. The peak in April was just over 1300 so we're not far off double that now, and as the trend has been steadily higher each day (except Saturday and Sunday when there are fewer tests), this is really not good news.

Perhaps you wonder why I get my figures from "someone on Twitter". The reason is that the Dutch government stopped reporting daily figures back in July and someone voluntarily took their place (read his story here). Actually, our government has really let us down over Covid. With this new peak in infections you may also wonder what action they've taken. The answer is surprisingly little. Last Friday it was announced that bars would have to close at 1 am, resulting in considerable push-back from bar owners, and that some kinds of group events should have no more than 50 people at a time. These measures came into force on Sunday, and mostly apply only to the worst affected areas. Today our prime minister added that the huge crowds, not limited to 50, of football fans at matches should not cheer or sing. I doubt this will be adequate.

Update 29th September
Just a few more days and we've passed a new milestone: more than 3000 infections in just one day. That's well over double the highest number that were seen in the first wave of infections. Our government's response ? Yesterday there was a press conference at which it was suggested that bars and restaurants should shut at 10 PM instead of 1 AM as before and that people might like to wear face masks when shopping. It's not compulsory though. Shops have to make their own decisions about whether to try to enforce this, so they mostly are not.

The response of the Dutch government to this disease is astonishingly inept. Just today, 13 people more are reported as having died of Covid, making a total of nearly 6400 so far. Let us remember that this is optional. Compared with other countries we're doing astonishing badly. Taiwan for instance has a bigger population than ours, with 23.8 million people compared with our 17.4 million, yet their total deaths due to the virus thus far are just seven. Not seventy, seven hundred or seven thousand, the last of which which would make their rate comparable with ours, but just one digit. 7. i.e. relative to the population the virus has killed more than a thousand times as many people here as it has in Taiwan.

People continue to become infected and ill in this country because our government is incapable of acting in the face of a crisis.

A second wave in the Netherlands was not unexpected. Indeed, watching our lacklustre response I've been expecting it for a while. My Dutch class began at the start of this month but I had already opted out in August because it was obvious where we were heading. But it's been obvious for much longer than that. In June I wrote a computer game based around this eventuality. It's a free download. You'll also probably need an emulator for the antique computer that it runs on.


Richard Adamfi said...

"My Dutch class began at the start of this month"

Are you learning Dutch or are you teaching it? I'm interested in learning Dutch and wondering what the best method would be."

David Hembrow said...

Richard: I'm very much still learning. It's another thing for which there's no quick fix: much time and practice required. If you're in the Netherlands then there are lessons available at colleges, some of which are quite expensive. If you're elsewhere then I don't know what's available to you. I started off when we were still living in the UK by reading Jip en Janneke children's books with the assistance of a dictionary (the stories are short and very cute), listening to Dutch radio online, watching Dutch films with subtitles in English & English language films with subtitles in Dutch, following a few courses on cassette and CD (I've been at this for a while). I know have a reasonably vocabulary, my grammar is still a but bizarre and my accent still marks me as a foreigner, but I can converse with people about pretty much anything and so I take that as a success. But you don't want to learn from me ;-)

Richard Adamfi said...

Aren't there lessons available over video calls using something like Zoom or Microsoft Teams? That would be good from the social distancing point of view and they would also be accessible for people in any location in the world.

David Hembrow said...

Richard: In March we switched from physical lessons to using MS Teams. It's not a great way of doing it. Not nearly so good as being there in person. During the holidays it was announced that they'd switch back to lessons in a classroom at the start of September when all the schools went back. I left the course in August, before the lessons re-started, because going into a full classroom in a not particularly well ventilated building did not seem like a good idea.

Kevin Love said...

This is particularly disturbing because sea level rise due to global warming will put The Netherlands underwater. One would imagine that the threatened destruction of the entire country would result in a change of behaviour. Sadly, not so.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a not-so-hidden secret is that Canada will make some large gains from global warming. In particular, the Great Clay Belt will be warm enough to be fertile farmland. Perhaps we can resettle the Dutch population there. See: