Risk of Long Covid structurally underexposed in Dutch coronavirus policy

AMSTERDAM - The Netherlands announced it would open a new expertise center on Long Covid. But the disease, sometimes called Post-Covid syndrome, was hardly on the political agenda for three years. And that was because it received little priority amid all the other issues the pandemic brought with it, AD reports after speaking with those involved. 


The Netherlands was off to a strong start when the first concerns about Long Covid were raised. To avoid what happened with Q-Fever patients, the Cabinet instructed Q-Support to also care for Long Covid patients under the name C-Support as early as March 2020. Health insurers quickly started reimbursing Long Covid treatments by physiotherapists and occupational therapists. And parliament unanimously instructed the government to properly organize care, supervision, and research. 


But in the three years that followed, specialized clinics closed, and research projects fizzled out due to a lack of funding. And the between 100,000 and 375,000 Long Covid sufferers in the Netherlands, according to estimates from the Outbreak Management Team, were left feeling not cared for, ignored, and hopeless. 


In all that time, Long Covid was never a serious theme in government communications. Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Hugo de Jonge, the Minister of Health between March 2020 and January 2022, hardly ever mentioned it in their press conference. And the OMT did not mention it in any of its advice during the first year of the pandemic. 


“Preventing Long Covid was never a government policy goal, so the OMT never explicitly advised on this,” OMT virologist Marion Koopmans said to AD. “Until summer 2021, it was not an active consideration in our discussions. That was not a problem at the time. If you focus on containing the virus, you take all the consequences with it. So also Long Covid.” 


After the summer of 2021, the question was whether Long Covid should play a role in relaxing restrictions, but it never led to explicit advice. “The pressure to relax was great. Post Covid was not on the radar of the population. Then it is difficult to explain that you are taking strict measures,” said Diederik Gommers, chairman of the Dutch Association of Intensive Care at the time. 


There was also little scientific basis to provide advice because the disease was still new. “How many people got Long Covid? How many people’s daily life was really strongly affected? We didn’t know that,” Koopmans said. “To impose restrictions based on such uncertain knowledge is quite something. And make no mistake: during such a crisis, it is difficult to look a week ahead, let alone six months.” 


Due to the lack of clarity and because everyone was busy with something else, the topic never became a priority. Patient organizations did their best to put the subject on the agenda but got little support. 


At the end of this month, the Cabinet will present plans for a new Long Covid expertise center. But that won’t provide immediate relief. “Unfortunately, research takes time,” Minister Ernst Kuipers of Public Health said, according to AD. Pushing money into it won’t get you answers tomorrow, he said. 


Kuipers denied that he was not making an effort for Long Covid patients, reiterating that he takes the matter “very seriously” and is pushing a lot of money into research that he took the initiative to share in an EU context. 

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