By Bart Swinkels

Starting as a friendly gesture to fellow students, when Bart Swinkels (Dutch, Groningen/Uppsala, cohort 2021/2023) started translating and sharing news about Covid-19 restrictions in the Netherlands, he never imagined the societal need that this initiative appears to fulfil. In this article, Swinkels reflects on the year 2021 and the journey of establishing his platform: Dutch Covid-19 News!

Imagine you are part of a community of international students, back in March 2020, when Covid broke out. You are not abroad however: you’re part of this international community while in your own country. You watch the news, and you know that restrictions are coming up – your international peers don’t speak your language and, although they know Covid is making its rounds – they do not know what is up and what the restrictions on their life will be. What do you do?

For me, it wasn’t even a question: I tried to help. When the pandemic first hit the Netherlands, I was in the final stages of my bachelor’s programme – an international programme with some 200 students, a vast majority of them not Dutch. Information was scarce, let alone information in English. Without any doubt or thought, I started to help guiding  my peers through Covid restrictions, as good as possible. 

Simply put: I started a WhatsApp group, and started dropping translations of Covid news there. It spread through the faculty like wildfire, and in no time I had pretty much all international students of the faculty in the group. Cool, I thought. Goal achieved, friends helped, work appreciated by people I know. But after summer, Covid had not gone yet. With the academic year 2020-2021 starting, restrictions and uncertainty came back, and the group spread through the network of international students in Groningen. It quickly gained more following: before the end of 2020, I had picked up some 2000 people. Wow. Just because of this small gesture I made to my peers, I now had 2000 people relying on me for their coverage of Covid news and restrictions? But: In the first weeks of 2021, with a curfew and subsequent riots in the Netherlands, the number of people in the group chats doubled.

Restrictions continued and the press conferences kept coming, all while decent information in English remained lacking. Even a year after the initial cases, information in English was not even close to being on-par with information in Dutch. By this time, the news channel had branched out from WhatsApp groups only to also a Twitter feed with Covid rates and other recurring items, and a website with the latest information, always updated within two hours after new information was released.

And why wouldn’t I? The difference between writing a message for one WhatsApp group, or forwarding that same message to two, three, or even ten groups, is just a matter of minutes. And the little effort it is, it is greatly appreciated by the people in the group chat – group chats by now. It’s been 20 months since I started this initiative for my fellow students. Since then I have helped countless people with specific Covid-related questions, and the groups have grown to include some 7000 people, something I never could have imagined, let alone planned.Let this perhaps be an inspiration for you. I think this initiative, these WhatsApp groups, show how much doing a little bit for a small group of people can branch out to become something big and valued by many. It shows that to make someone’s life a little easier, you don’t have to do much. It shows that helping with little things can go a far way. And who knows, if people are grateful, they even might start making donations to thank you for your efforts. Although I will be studying in Uppsala next semester, I will keep track of the Dutch Covid news and restrictions – I owe that to the followers. And if you’re in Groningen and not fluent in Dutch (yet?), feel free to join the Dutch Covid-19 News group chat, and I’ll try to help you wherever I can!

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