Bart Swinkels, a 25-year-old student at the University of Groningen, started a WhatsApp group in March 2020 to inform internationals about COVID-19 news. Today, he still carries on the project, with more than 6,000 members who receive regular updates.
Nearly three years since the coronavirus pandemic started, COVID-19 is still among us. Even though it may not make the front pages anymore, the vaccination campaign continues: on Wednesday, the government announced that anyone aged 12 or over could get the next booster.
While there is less concern about the virus and its impact on everyday life than the most difficult days of the pandemic, there are still many people interested in staying updated and reading the latest developments, including those living abroad with less access to the most up-to-date information in a language they can understand.
“Even today, the government releases English updates rather late.e”
Back in 2020, Bart Swinkels was doing his bachelor’s at the University College Groningen (UCG), where about sixty percent of students are internationals, when the Dutch government announced the first coronavirus measures.
“As one of the few Dutch [students], I was glued to the TV to get the latest news, and I quickly realized that my international peers at the UCG would not understand any of the restrictions announced,” he recounted.
Swinkels began posting updates on the class’ WhatsApp group chat. “Things were evolving quickly, so I created a separate group only for COVID updates,” he explained. “There was a lack of English information during the pandemic’s early stage. Even today, the government releases English updates rather late, whereas Dutch information is always instantly available,” Swinkels continued.
36 groups and over 8,500 members
The group was intended for peers only and gathered about 250 members in a few months. But following a UKrant article in September 2020, so many more people discovered the project that Swinkels had to create more groups to handle all the subscription requests – at that moment, WhatsApp had a 256 member limit.
“At some point, I had 36 WhatsApp groups with a total of over 8,500 members. It really felt like a job and a responsibility,” he said. Swinkels explained how he planned his schedule based on every press conference, making sure to have time to sit down, watch it live, translate the news to English and deliver it to the groups.
In 2021, the project kept growing, but slower. Some people left the groups, others joined, “but the groups always had an average of 200 members,” Swinkels said. With the new spike in cases in November 2021, he had to open seven new groups in one month.
“I also switched topics, focusing on travel restrictions and rules, which became a big thing at that moment, in particular for internationals,” he added. Swinkels told people they could message him directly for updates about specific countries. “I didn’t track how many people sent me a message, but I am pretty sure they were several hundred!” he recalled.
As the project established itself as a reference for internationals, Swinkels also opened a Twitter account to repost official government communications and a website to gather the main information and give people a clear overview of the situation in The Netherlands. He stopped posting updates on the website when the government lifted the latest restriction, keeping the WhatsApp group as the main channel.
After spending the last semester in Sweden, Swinkels is now in Japan for another semester of his Euroculture Master’s. He keeps posting updates on the now 20 active WhatsApp groups. “There are still thousands of people in the groups, and they still expect updates from me,” he said, “and today, the workload is not that much anymore, so I decided to continue the project from here.”
Although the focus stays on COVID-19, living abroad made Swinkels give news on other big, disrupting news stories in The Netherlands sometimes. “Public transport strikes, for example, dramatically affect everyone in the country, including internationals, and I thought it would be helpful to share information about them, too,” he explained.
For Swinkels, “it is weird to send coronavirus updates from Japan, where everyone still wears face masks, and plastic glasses are everywhere. It is a bizarre contrast compared to how things are going in Europe.”
Anyone interested can join Bart Swinkels WhatsApp group via this link.