When Willoughby locals The Whitworth family relocated overseas for work recently, the last thing they expected was to go into official lockdown due to the COVID-19 breakout. Mark Whitworth was kind enough to answer our questions on what they’re currently experiencing…
(*this interview took place in mid-March – we’re aware many facts and figures may have changed.)
Where are you currently living and why?
MARK: We moved to Amsterdam at the end of July 2019 when an opportunity came up for my wife, Lisa, that would provide the family the platform for the adventure of a lifetime and experiences that would both fulfill our family and our careers. We never imagined we would end up in Corona central!
What is the COVID-19 situation where you are?
MARK: It’s very serious here. As I write there are more than 2,000 cases in the Netherlands and more than 12,000 in Belgium and Germany which border the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a little more than three times the area of Sydney and has a higher population density, so the threat of a fast-moving contagion is very real.
When did you officially go into lockdown?
MARK: Lockdown began last Sunday. All schools, museums and “horeca”; restaurants, cafes and bars were closed. At this stage I’d call this “lockdown lite”. We are in a better position than many of our friends and colleagues in Spain, Italy and Belgium where the restrictions are far more severe.
What is the Dutch government’s current position on how long their lockdown will be for?
MARK: There hasn’t been an official date set for the lockdown to end, but the schools have been shut until at least 6 April, which means they won’t be open until after Easter at the earliest.
How did you prepare for lockdown?
MARK: One of the things about living in Amsterdam is that houses are much smaller and fridges are tiny compared to what we were used to in Australia. There is nothing like a Woolworths nearby. Instead we have smaller stores dotted around the neighbourhood. Like many Amsterdammers, our only mode of transport are our bikes, so we planned a week’s meals and bought only what we needed to last a couple of days and healthy snacks for working from home. Importantly we started talking to the kids explaining that things might get tougher living and to be prepared for the loss of some of the liberties that we take for granted.
What were the shops like prior to lockdown? Was anyone fighting over toilet paper or anything else?
MARK: The supermarkets were very orderly and calm and we didn’t witness any quarrels over toilet paper or anything like that. There were some queues outside the local supermarket before it opened, but people have largely been calm about the situation. The most, uniquely dutch, panic we witnessed was in the queues outside Amsterdam’s famous “coffee shops” before they were ordered to close!
Can you and your wife, Lisa, work from home?
MARK: Both our companies are supportive of working from home and we have a home office space set up, with reliable fast internet (250mb down /25mb up), so we can video conference easily. Lisa has been working from home full-time for almost 3 weeks since her office closed and I began working from home full-time on Monday.
What has lockdown been like so far?
MARK: Transitioning the kids to a “new normal” way of online learning, balancing our work and everything else going has been a challenge. The kids miss their friends so we are making sure they are able to have digital face-to-face time as a substitute for the time being. We have also been in regular contact with family and friends in Willoughby who have all been checking in on us.
The other thing we have noticed is how quiet it is, there are very few planes flying over and we hear the sound of birds all day. The other thing that’s changed is that shops will no longer accept cash, and smaller shops, like the local bakery have a 1-person-in-1-person-out policy.
Have you devised a routine?
MARK: In anticipation of the potential for lockdown we started planning a schedule with the kids, making sure they knew what they would need to do for school and mixing it up with breaks and other activities as well as including chores to help keep the household going while we are at home.
Can you still go out? And if so, what do you go out for?
MARK: We can go out as long as we practice social distancing. We go for a brisk walk every morning and evening with the kids to make up for the time they otherwise would have been playing in the playground or riding their bikes to and from the metro station. Just coming out of winter everyone’s vitamin D levels need a serious top up, so getting out in the direct sun, when it’s out, is really important to the health and wellbeing of the community, something that we take for granted in Australia.
What is available at the shops?
MARK: Because there hasn’t been a great deal of hoarding, most things we need are still available or restocked regularly. Fresh produce seems to be ok, but anything that comes across a border seems to be less available, for example avocados come mainly from South Africa. Most of the supermarkets still have in-store baked bread fresh every day.
Is there anything that is scarce?
MARK: There are shortages of the regular staples like pasta, rice, flour, breakfast cereals and toilet paper, and Dutch staples like rookwurst sausages which form part of a stamppot meal are in short supply.
Do you have things delivered?
MARK: Deliveries have all been impacted, but supermarket deliveries are less common due to the smaller amounts that people are able to store in their pantries or fridges. Deliveries of other items are typically delayed and once delivered, dropped at the door.
Is there anything you wish you had done prior to lockdown that would have made life easier?
MARK: Cooked a couple of frozen meals, because they take up less space in the freezer.
Any other tips for people about to go into lockdown?
- Get a haircut, all the hairdressers have closed due to the 1.5m spacing requirement. I’m going to look like a hippie by the end of this!
- Explain what social distancing means to your family to help children understand what it is, why it’s necessary. For example, why parents can hold their children’s hands but you can’t play with your friends.
- Spend some time learning about Google Classrooms (or equivalent) if your kids use it, and make sure the kids are more confident using a computer, keyboard and mouse/touchpad. They’ll be using it more if schools go to online learning.
- Get a good internet package. If you’re going to be using video conferencing regularly, fast internet is a must, particularly upload speeds otherwise you’ll look like digital rice to your colleagues.
Main image: The Whitworth family at Amsterdam’s famous Tulip Festival before COVID-19 broke out.