I USED to laugh at QR codes. Several years ago, I saw one implausibly printed on the tail of an aeroplane. But I’m not laughing any more. You need one to do anything in Amsterdam now.
For those who have not taken the vaccine, getting hold of a QR code is arduous, costly and uncomfortable, requiring you to book a slot to have your nose poked. In exchange, you are presented with a little slice of freedom – 24 hours to do whatever you want, while your code is still active.
As the Dutch government is at pains to explain, this is totally fair, and in line with democratic values. The codes are a lot smarter than before, too. If you try to screengrab them they disappear, and they even come with a fun little animation of happy cyclists, so that the person scanning knows that it’s legit. Your personal data pops up upon scanning. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damned oppressive.
The last one I got, I meticulously planned out my day. After lining up for my scheduled nose poke, I watched not one but two films in the cinema. I went to a bar AND a restaurant. And to cap it all, a festival. I savoured the feeling of being a part of mainstream society, knowing that when it ran out, I would return to the routine of pretence and compromise. At the festival, it felt good to be around others. We’ve been separated for so long, but the feelings of restriction melted away in the crowd. I had the sensation that, united, we could overcome the fear and the forces which divide us. But then my QR code expired and I was legally no longer allowed to enter a public venue. Of course, all this is something quite new. I’ve lived in this city for eight years now, often boasting that on a hot day, nothing could beat it. Freedom was everywhere. I’ve jumped in the canal and swum to the nearest bar. I’ve hitched a ride on a boat with a woman, the two of us shouting AMSTERDAM! as that was where we were. I’ve sat on a terrace with Hell’s Angels, as a rollerblader wearing only a thong wiggled past. One of the bikers remarked ‘Nice weather we’ve been having’ and that was that.
I’ve walked the red-light district with a retired police constable who told me of the excesses he spent 30 years moderating and occasionally engaging in, as the force’s sole openly gay officer. I’ve been free here and I will always appreciate that. But I must confess, I thought that the Dutch political system, which is built around the principles of compromise and coalition, would safeguard this freedom for everyone. I was very wrong.
Protests against the passports were not reported on; the explanations for the safety measures wafer-thin. There is no sympathy and no recourse. I am confident that in time, the events we are living through will be seen for what they are – massive over-reach, driven by fear and the need for ‘decisive action’ no matter the cost. I pray it’s nothing more sinister. For now at least, actual science and actual democracy have taken the back seat, while a new form of techno tribalism comes snarling to the fore. All I can do is pray for simpler times, where QR codes could be found on aeroplane tails, and not ushering in fascism.