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One protester on why he took to the streets over Dutch COVID curfew

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Police in action against protesters on Museumplein in Amsterdam.
Police in action against protesters on Museumplein in Amsterdam.   -   Copyright  Sarah Tekath
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With shops looted, cars set alight, and over 500 arrests made by police over three days, the curfew riots in the Netherlands at the end of January were the worst episodes of street violence the country has seen since 1980.

In recent months, there have been various demonstrations against the Dutch government's coronavirus measures, but the introduction of an evening curfew last month has been seen as an unwelcome escalation in the restrictions of civil liberties.

"I don't agree with the lockdown," Marcel R., a 56-year-old entrepreneur and protester, told Euronews. "Nor with the mask requirement, the evening curfew and the school closures. I'm not a virus denier. I do believe the virus exists, and I also understand that sometimes in the beginning of a crisis, there are measures that are excessive."

Marcel has attended multiple demonstrations on Amsterdam's Museumplein, joining hundreds voicing their dissatisfaction about the way the country's government is handling the pandemic.

While the actions of those elements of the protests who started the riots have divided public opinion in the Netherlands, the ire of those who saw the demonstrations as justified is not going away.

Exercising the right to demonstrate

While he understands that weak people need to be protected from the virus, Marcel is one of many who believe this is not being done well by the government.

"Society is being broken, as well as various sectors of the economy," he said.

He also concedes that it is a good development that within a year since the pandemic was declared, there has been a multitude of vaccines produced through international cooperation and that people will soon be vaccinated. However, he does not agree with how vaccinations are currently being carried out.

"Why do we need to first vaccinate 90-year-olds? From my point of view, no one needs to live to 110. I'd rather my children be able to go to a café or a concert," he told Euronews. Instead, he thinks the at-risk group between 50 and 80 should be vaccinated first. "It would make much more sense to focus on that instead of crippling the whole society".

The police cracked down and now it's quiet again, but the young people still can't find an internship, go out or play soccer. The situation has not changed. There is still no perspective, not for young people and not for 40-year-olds.
Marcel R
Protester

Besides, as an older citizen himself, Marcel worries about where the restrictions may lead to in the future. "Everyone has their own motivation for this. I don't have a motivation to join in the riots, but I certainly want to make my voice heard, in a big, public place where there's a little risk".

He would rather be dead than muzzled, he added, and believes it should always be possible for people to speak out.

'Sometimes the adrenaline takes over'

"I demonstrated a lot when I was young, and I consider the participants here to be normal people. Many are my age. I see nothing wrong with that,” said Marcel.

“There was certainly a small group of men there, with whom I want nothing to do, and also women, with flowers in their hair. But the majority are just normal people, like me.

"For young people, it can be exciting to suddenly come face to face with the police which I can partly understand. I've been young, too, and sometimes the adrenaline just takes over.

"Of course, everyone knows that it's a punishable offence and that you're not allowed to throw stones and loot, and it's certainly not very smart, but sometimes something like that happens. Besides, there have always been riots, even before COVID-19," he argued.

"The police cracked down and now it's quiet again, but the young people still can't find an internship, go out or play soccer. The situation has not changed. There is still no perspective, not for young people and not for 40-year-olds".

One glaring observation

The scale of the protests and the depth of their ill-feeling caught many in the country off-guard, including someone whose job it is to keep a finger on the public’s pulse.

Working for the coronavirus behavioural unit of the Dutch Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM), Frank den Hertog monitors social behaviour and well-being during the pandemic.

Conducting surveys with a group of 50,000 to 60,000 people drawn from all segments of the population, his role is to help gauge how the government's COVID-19 measures are being received. These are then followed up by several in-depth interviews to glean deeper insights.

For him, one glaring observation stands out.

"We notice that young people are underrepresented in our questionnaires," he told Euronews. "Nevertheless, there are several thousand young people, between 16 and 24, whose data we can evaluate".

The results from this group, though, are almost unremarkable; the motivations of the young reactionaries who participated in the riots are not obvious from the data obtained from the surveys.

"The majority of people, including young people, simply say, 'Yes, the corona measures are annoying and we wish it was different, but we can't change it after all,'" explained den Hertog. Statements about wanting to actively resist the measures, however, were hard to find.

'I didn't foresee it escalating like that'

"It surprised me what happened with the riots," den Hertog admitted. "I didn't foresee it escalating like that".

For him, it's important to look at where the rioting took place. "Those are the hardest-hit areas, regarding income levels and educational opportunities," he explained.

Den Hertog believes the rioters are therefore not so much concerned with coronavirus or the pandemic-related measures, but with the dichotomy in society in general. "Some families don't have a big apartment where everyone has their own room. If someone loses their job there, that's also rougher than for a family with two good salaries".

For many young people, he said, this is a terrible time, with the pandemic exacerbating existing societal issues.

"When we have 100 conversations in our group, we don't find anyone who is so sceptical of the government or vaccination that they would take to the streets," he said.

"Although, of course, there are people who have doubts or don't want to get vaccinated. But it is not apparent that the general public feels that the measures are a big problem. So I think it's a very small group of rioters, but just a very visible one".