Corona Diary #6

Whistleblower

Written On 18-06-2020, as part of my self-isolation diary.

Corona can be seen as the most successful whistleblower in recent history. A physical disease which denudes social diseases. In the wake of its rampage, it pointed out the staggering worldwide inequality and lack of access to medical care. 

In the US, corona had already addressed its weak social safety, for it’s mostly the financially vulnerable who have died there. Corona has also pointed out how spoiled we (me too) have become, indulging ourselves into limitless air travel, polluting the world. But in this particular case, corona has touched upon one of the most counternatural, outdated, hypocrite and hopefully one day condemned industries: meat processing. 

It is interesting to observe how corona sweeps across the European Union. Doing so, it cuts open all the incorporated flaws which haven’t been addressed but should have. Systematically, it removes the plaster from the normally hidden wounds of our union: the more dystopian aspects we don’t like to see, for they might destabilize the collective conscience and our way of depicting our beloved EU. 

Corona’s most recent discovery is the hidden world of massive slaughterhouses in Germany and The Netherlands. One outbreak after another has revealed that the majority of employees have been infected by the coronavirus. Its employees are predominantly recruited in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania.

Dodgy job agencies aim to recruit people so poor that they don’t have a choice, other than to do the dirty jobs we don’t want to do in the west. They’re then housed in derelict dorms and are driven in buses towards the meat factory each morning. And after a tiresome day of tearing away pork intestines, these modern slaves are driven back to their barracks, which on themselves look like a pigsty.

On the news yesterday, was an enormous plant, located in Rheda, Germany. It has some 7000(!) employees, who have the honorable task to kill and process about 20.000 pigs on a good day. On its roof stands an large billboard depicting a cheerful cow and pig. I think pigs are not smiling once they know the horrors inside the building. 

The gritty abattoir, which is owned by a billionaire, even has its own football club and a stadium! The irony would be even comical, but this matter is serious. As said, most of the employees are underpaid, overworked labour-migrants from the less wealthy regions of the EU, who now also have to suffer from corona. And I thought it was the European Union’s fundamental endeavour to increase equality. Not to exploit inequality, in favour of the already wealthy! European governments are struggling to excuse themselves for slavery in the past, while modern slavery is still alive and kicking.

So irony wants that here you have a factory full of pigs who weren’t supposed to be bred and killed in the first place, processed by workers who weren’t supposed to work there, to ‘produce’ meat of which 20% will be thrown away as a consequence of revenue calculations. (Throwing away packages of meat is ultimately cheaper than giving it discount tags.) 

Perhaps they’d disagree at first, but I guess that ultimately, corona will be a true blessing for the modern slaves working there, and for the pigs, who are definitely not smiling like the banner wants to make us believe.

In the places now affected by outbreaks, it is often not the outbreak which is the most alarming. It’s not the corona infections itself that engage me into the actual news coverages.

No, it’s becoming aware of the ongoing activities which makes it poignant: the incomprehensible facts that leak to the outside world, as an unforeseen consequence of the corona discovery. For instance, that apparently, there is still a large fur industry in the Netherlands. That also, 5,6 Million pigs are slaughtered each year in our small country. 15,500 a day. We must be damn hungry. 

Photo credit: KOBU Agency Portugal

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Summer Journal: Dutch Siesta

I’ve started a summer journal. This is a note from 26-06-2020.

It’s 11:57 PM now. The temperature is about 23 degrees celsius. It has been the warmest day so far this year. And -yes I might sound ungrateful- hopefully the last. As said in earlier notes, this country is underprepared for this type of weather. It doesn’t have a siesta like in Spain. The economy isn’t halted even the slightest bit. Activities aren’t postponed. Life doesn’t slow down. Work intensity isn’t diminished. 

Frankly, the approach in the Netherlands seems to be even counterintuitive: The stronger the heatwave, the more active Dutch people become. Today, streets were sprawling with sweaty folks, hurrying to and fro on their bike with a red face. To the beach. To work. To the terrace. Or to accomplish all these activities within the same day. 

Despite global warming, Dutch people still gratify each warm day as if it were the last. Muggy and uncomfortable days like these are still perceived as seldom and need to be fully exploited. I think it’s a reflex which occurs whenever we see ’thirty degrees’ appearing on the forecast. It’s an old habit, originating from the harsh winters and disappointing summers we used to have in the past.

But those times are now disappearing and slowly being replaced by hot and wet seasons, like in Asia. As with any obsession, not much is left of its origins, but the reflex remained. Foreigners from warmer countries must witness this awkward summer obsession with spanish shame. 

Air Conditioners

A related development is the multiplied purchase of air conditioners. From a growing amount of apartments, I see the unmistakable airco hoses sticking out of the windows. Some inhabitants have even fabricated a wooden construction, from where the hose can eject the warm air. 

Herewith, I’d like to make a modest correlation with the end of mankind. It’s quite a simple circle really: People have made the world warmer by using too much energy, and now they need air conditioners to bear with the heat they created, using more energy, increasing warmth even more, for which more air conditioners are needed. 

Why would this be the end of mankind? Well, because people buy the air conditioners for their own good, and don’t take into account the macro outcome. A large chunk of people cannot transcend their own life-span. Long term effects are therefore not considered, for it won’t be their responsibility anymore after they die; Most of the ecological problems of the world of today, have been created by those who didn’t care about the world of tomorrow.

It’s outright selfish, but unfortunately very natural human behaviour. The end of mankind is near, but if you happen to be an air conditioner salesman, you might be able to hold out a little longer than the rest of us. You might even be the last man standing.

Photo credit: Tim Roosjen

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Corona Diary #5

How is the Netherlands handling the crisis?

Written over multiple days in June as part of my self-isolation diary.

03-06-2020 Bike Hell: My laziness tells me to write this note tomorrow, but my discipline tells me to write it today. It seems that this time, my discipline is the winner. The heat of yesterday has backed off a little. Also, corona drifts away quickly from people’s minds, including mine. But to be reminded of it, one has only to visit the city centre or public transport. In my hometown, bicycles have been forbidden, and loose standing bikes are removed and relocated to a faraway depot (you could call it: bike hell).

Today, during a stroll around the city, I’ve seen whole bunches of them being lifted onto a truck and taken away. New, old, rusty, expensive. All types were confiscated, even children’s bikes. And people who drove unconsciously into this sudden no-biking zone, got barked at by diligent stewards and were directed elsewhere. The rules that allow the municipality to do so, have been installed in order to prevent many people from merging too much, hence preventing corona spread.

Nonetheless, I don’t think they took into account that people have been riding their bikes for over a hundred year through these streets. So a paradigm change won’t occur within three days either. Anyway, the removal of bikes and sending away of drivers seems to be a cumbersome, ineffective activity which I don’t think will last very long.

In public transport, people are obliged to wear facial masks. It is a saddening sight, because the human countenance which makes people human, is hidden. Our daily dose of smiles from strangers has been reduced drastically since the introduction of masks, and will possibly lead to an unhealthy deficiency in unspoken outings of kindness. And since the smartphone revolution already, suchlike gentle acts of mutual recognition had been become meagre. A worrying development. 

04-06-2020 Vacation:  Corona seems miles away, and the Dutch are shifting their worries from a deadly virus, to forging holiday plans. France and Spain have announced to reopen their borders in Juli for tourists by car, so that the exhausted Dutch families can once again enjoy their well-deserved traffic jams on smoggy highways and annual family camping dramas. 

14-06-2020 Washing hands: Corona measures are increasing but my understanding of them (or willingness to do so), is decreasing. As part of our ‘intelligent lockdown’ strategy, a large survey amongst 64.000 fellow dutchies was conducted to map their compliance with corona rules. It unveiled that keeping distance is getting harder, but washing hands is still feasible. There is a serious error (perhaps on purpose?) in this research: washing hands is not a corona measure. It is the very basis of personal hygiene. But the respondents still confirmed obediently that this is something corona-related. 

So I confirm herewith the internationally claimed assertion that Dutch people have the dirtiest hands. It is culture specific, and I as a dutchman, can acknowledge this: the gross of Dutch people doesn’t wash hands after having used the restroom. The country’s overall cleanliness and absence of deadly diseases might give an explanation. It’s amazing. Here, it is so clean that we even dare to shake the unwashed hands which just wiped an ass. It is quirky, but when abroad, I have always washed my hands obsessively. But when back in my home-country I started skipping it once again. Finally I unlearned it, after my girlfriend Marina shared with me her disgust about this stubborn, culturally inclined habit. I came to even like it, for washing hands is maintaining your body and therefore a small act of self-respect.  

14-06-2020 Priorities: A school example of hypocrisy. Is family less important than vacation? Dutch travel organizations cannot wait to send their customers to the all-inclusive hotels they’d initially booked. Since today, vacations within europe are possible again, after Spain and Italy (which we first didn’t want to help financially) reopened borders for tourism. Now, after we had to fear a severe lung-disease for so long, the second worry is whether we can go on holiday or not, whether we can drink unlimited cocktails at the pool while being served by underpaid labourers, whether we can stuff ourselves again with fast-food, alongside a beachfront crammed with concrete hotels. 

The government understands this impatience of travel organizations and holiday-goers very well, and promises full safety when they travel in aircraft to their destination. The crammed, profit oriented, polluting flying barrels which we call airplanes are not only more liable to an outbreak amongst passengers, they are also the worldwide delivery service for corona. For a great deal, air travel was responsible for the fast corona spread, a couple of months ago, and now, suddenly, they will be fully functioning again. And not for loved ones or family to finally reunite. No, for vacation. 

Even more poignant is that I need to show an impossible amount of proof of relationship to be able to get my loved one here. Me and Marina are excruciatingly separated because we don’t have the paperwork, while Dutch vacationers will be criss crossing throughout europe with all the risks involved, for this one vital activity: leisure. Or should I say, for economy?

I hope that one day, our government will have understanding for people like us, too. We don’t want leisure, we only want each others proximity, for I consider us family. Is family less important than vacation? According to our government, yes. Is paperwork more important than the risk of an outbreak? According to the government, yes.

Photo Credit: Kayla on Unsplash

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Corona Diary #3

Written on 14-05-2020 as part of my self isolation journal.

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

I never thought this famous quote from The Shawshank Redemption would become so relevant to society. But it did.

Reminders of the pandemic are becoming rather scarce throughout the streets. The city is bustling, albeit under an odd, somewhat made atmosphere. It is the expected point where measures and the corona regulations are becoming blurry. It is hard to follow sometimes. Is it still advised to stay home most of the time? Can I go out with three family members but not with three friends? 

From a social psychological angle, the future seems quite worrisome in this sense, especially when corona has ultimately disappeared from people’s minds sooner than the threat of corona itself. In other words, the understanding for strict regulations will probably fade before the actual virus does.

Then, after a few months, there will be less compliance than is required to keep the virus away. And when the government will make an attempt on getting economy fully running again, enforcing stringent corona precautions might cause misunderstanding and frustration, and eventually violence, for instance in public transport. Not to speak of a potential, striking return of the coronavirus.

The attention-span of many is not extensive enough, I’m afraid, to keep honoring the rules as they did until recently. In Wisconsin for example, judges have already rescinded corona regulations as protests and public unrest were growing. And partly, I understand this impatience: people have the natural desire to live. This, I think, is not simply a matter collectivity versus individuality, it is a perilous area of tension and most of all a conflicting question: What’s the use of saving other lives, if therefore we need to give up living ourselves? 

Underneath it lies a more existential question; what do we consider life, and what do we consider death? I suppose people have an importunate desire to prevent leading a life devoid of living, for that would mean they’d be dead before they are dead. I think this poignant contradiction will be the biggest challenge in the times to come.

Photo credit: Anastasiia Chepinska

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Lidia’s Wisdom

Babushka Lidia is a woman of extraordinary strength. At the imposing age of eighty-two, she lives a physically intense life in a wooden cottage, some twenty kilometers away from the closest city. Apart from the occasional resupply by family, she is largely self sufficient. Whenever I’m residing temporarily in Russia, a visit to this admirable woman guarantees to become a highlight. This piece of writing is a devotion to her and many other brave elderly.

With three delicate kisses on the cheeks and a tight yet gentle hug, Babushka Lidia ensured me a pleasant farewell. It meant saying an indefinite goodbye to a very remarkable person. After reassuring her of our return, I tumbled down the small stairs and found myself in the characteristic living room. Its low ceiling (confirmed by a fierce headache) and squeaking floor supplied me with a last warm, cozy embrace. 

As we walked across the yard towards the adjoining dirt road, Lidia peeked out of the window once more, with a soothing smile. A glance of reconciliation. Upon embarking the car, we waved back and set off. Within moments, Lidia was out of view. And so was her tiny, two floor cottage. Or, as it is called in Russia; her Datcha. The weakly illuminated window of it, reduced swiftly into a modest dot in the darkness. 

Just a stroll away from this fairy tale place, lies a dense forest full of tall pine trees. Pointy treetops outline the horizon. This captivating panorama reaches out far into the distance. The house is encircled by a stretch of cultivated land, wherein Lidia grows potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, paprika, cucumbers, zucchini and so on. Often, her skillful and persistent way of farming leads to a surplus of food. She then calls out for family to pick up some of her harvest. For us back in the city, her insurmountable production levels generally lead to another week of zucchini and potatoes for dinner.

Every summer, Lidia can be found here, shovelling land and practicing other kinds of complicated agricultural labour (of which I don’t possess the slightest knowledge). All the desperate attempts of family to re-establish her into her city apartment were unsuccessful. Only in the relentless Russian winter, when snow and ice begin to obstruct the farming, she relocates reluctantly to the city, just to return the very next spring. 

Lidia was a child during WWII. And in her turbulent youth, she fell into the hands of the Germans and was banished to a labour camp. And so were her sisters and parents. She had told us that at times, there were not much more than a few crumbs of bread to eat. This bitter epoch of scarcity lasted until far after wartime. Oftentimes, she was expected to overcome about twenty kilometers on foot towards the nearest settlement, in order to obtain a negligible amount of groceries. If any groceries at all. 

On the worst of days, she returned home empty handed. Besides, the journey was not without hazards, as it crossed dense forests covered in snow, inhabited by bears and wolves. And if that is not enough, the temperatures during those risky ventures dropped regularly to far below zero. Additionally it’s worth mentioning that her shoes, if you could call them so, were made of plain cardboard. 

In the subsequent decades of her life, she worked, as many women did during soviet times, in an enormous plant. As chief of the factory kitchen, she had thousands of hungry labourer’s mouths to feed. Perhaps it’s a plausible explanation for her superb farming productivity nowadays. Over ten years ago, she lost her beloved husband. They had been married for over fifty years. Lidia has been grieving ever since.

To this day, she misses him undiminished. In speech and ritually, she pays homage to him. More recently, Lidia had suffered from a variety of cardiovascular problems, for which she underwent multiple surgeries. And the list of alike intriguing life events continues endlessly. Nevertheless, it couldn’t withhold her from residing in the cottage once again, irrigating plants and shovelling land with a fulfilled smile on her face.  

When trying to understand her life’s narrative, the significance of it becomes evident. She overcame miseries, nearly incomprehensible for youngsters like me. During a pleasantly melancholic conversation with her, it struck me that, as I looked into her dark green eyes, I was looking into a bittersweet past. Lidia had felt and seen anything that induces anyone with loads of anxiety.

During the lengthy talk with her, I promptly realized something peculiar. The curious eyes I was making contact with, stood once face to face with German camp wardens. Next to this, intense surgeries, grieving over the dead, thirty years of working in a factory, starvation and numerous other sorts of dismay bashed upon her life. To the same extent however, she had felt affection and tenderness. Either from a loving family, children or a good husband. Henceforth, her family’s astonishing solicitude still keeps her warm in times of distress, like a thick blanket during the harshest Russian winters. 

Considering this, I reckon that being in Lidia’s proximity offered me some sort of immunity against any problem, even though I’m nearly twice as tall and still have my teeth. Her carefree expression made me feel safe from harm. Her impregnable wisdom and persistence instilled me with loads of consolation. Without a doubt, I felt protected by this eighty-two-year-old woman.

It felt as if her eventful past reduces the anxiety about the uncertainties of my future. There will be difficulties, tragedies, grief and the occasional headache. But to a similar extent, moments of beauty, growth and love will present themselves. What matters is that you perceive life’s inevitable stages with gratitude. And later on, like Lidia, with a healthy dose of melancholy. Preferably when harvesting potatoes from the meadows, accompanied by an unconcerned but wise smile on your face. 

Lidia’s contentment contradicts profoundly with the busy lives some contemporary people chase. Millennials, for example, need to do skydiving, visit the Bahamas, do an Arctic expedition, climb the career ladder before there’s no more time. Or visit all the countries in the world, and simultaneously maintain a glorious love life. All before the interlude of life’s final phase. It’s likely that these ambitions are born out of pure fear for mortality, rather than unfolding from a genuine, congruent desire to accomplish them. 

Some want to complete this list of accomplishments before it’s all over. ‘You only live once’ is a popular philosophy, which is, of course, undeniably true. You do live only once. Nonetheless it contains a counterproductive element. Its definition emphasizes unwittingly the things we haven’t done or experienced in our brief existence, rather than cherishing and gratifying life’s tests we’ve gone through already. 

In an ironical way, it’s chiefly the elderly people like Lidia, who appear the most serene with the idea of our imminent mortality. For they are already soberly familiar with life’s misfortune and its sorrows. Lidia and many other elderly prove that it’s important to grow old solving life’s phases in an accepting way.  Not full of envy or regret about the things we haven’t done or achieved, but content with the suffering and grateful for any granted moments of sublimity. 

There is another, more mind-broadening aspect to be learned from Lidia’s story. It’s quite often discussed theoretically by existentialists such as Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom. And more fundamentally by philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas are now anything but outdated. In the finely inverted words of Kierkegaard:

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

These thinkers underline the correlation between depression and the fear of getting older. This is undoubtedly connected to nowadays obsessive emphasis on youthfulness in Western countries. But also to the aforementioned ‘you only live once’ construction, which actually implies ‘you’re only young once’. Our juvenile time is seen as the worthiest part of life, wherein people are at their best, only to thereafter descend into a long, boring epoch of old age. This alleged long stretch of regression, leaves no room for further development.

In spite of this, talking to Lidia made me envy her calmness and wisdom. Though ambiguously, it denuded my abundance of fear for the unpredictable future too. She has the advantage of being familiar with life’s unavoidable difficulties, while I as a young adult, still need to find ways to transcend them. Harsh lessons are awaiting me. But Lidia’s glance from the small window and her bittersweet stories all instilled me with resilience towards the unforeseeable future. 

Lidia

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.