An RTL Today reader shares her critical views on the measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus.

I am a woman of 39 years, of average intelligence, socially functioning, in excellent physical shape, without significant ailments. I prefer books and newspapers to Youtube and Facebook, and real conversation to social networks, and I am vaccinated with all common vaccines except against Covid-19. Oh, and happily married to a male, and slightly better (he’s reading over my shoulder - so much for freedom of expression ;-) ) version of myself.

I’d say I am a rather normal person. Like the majority of people who since a few months participate in the white marches, to protest against the current anti-Covid-19 policy and to call for more cohesion and comprehension among people. Some of the demonstrators may carry weird and nonsensical convictions about Covid and the fight against Covid (“they” want to kill the poor, or Bill Gates is trying to … whatever), but if I go to a football game and some of the fans are racist, then that does not make me a racist, right?

Unfortunately, in the public opinion, all people opposing the current management of the Covid crisis seem to be placed in one and the same group of ill-informed, selfish, irresponsible, conspiracy-believing and extreme right people. As this image of the so-called ‘antivaxx’ is largely confirmed by many media outlets, I am grateful to RTL Today for the opportunity to try to put some of my thoughts into words. You may not agree with them or consider them biased or incorrect, but you may also find some relevancy in them - at least, that’s what I hope for.

I’d like to start with a few general observations about Covid-19. The disease is a complicated matter, and we are still in the process of getting to know it and fully seize its dimensions.

Effects vary

People are not affected equally by Covid-19. Recognized risk factors include individual health condition (obesity or being overweight, hypertension, diabetes, chronical respiratory illnesses, cancer) and health-impacting factors such as age, sex, social status and wealth.

Countries are not affected equally either. Some healthcare systems have resisted better to the strain of Covid patients on hospitals than others. Some of the reasons for this are probably to be found in national health policies: over the past decennia, in the Western world, there has been a tendency to subject public healthcare to the principles of the private sector, such as profitability and ‘lean’ functioning, leading among other things to a decline in wages, personnel and – a fact that also concerns Luxembourg but is rarely mentioned – the number of hospitals beds available per capita.

Furthermore, Covid-19 is a worldwide problem. Considering this, it is startling that Luxembourg, as most other countries, seems to think only within its own borders. Even if all Luxembourgish residents were vaccinated and collective immunity were reached, what can this possibly mean for collective immunity worldwide when only two percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus? I find it by the way ironic that governments and other authorities are telling their population that getting a Covid vaccine is something you do for your fellow man, not for yourself, while at the same time starving developing and poor countries of vaccine doses. Seems rather selfish to me.

One size does not fit all

Now, on to the response to Covid-19. Most countries in the world have adopted a “one-size-fits-all” anti-Covid strategy since the start of the pandemic two years ago, consisting mainly of lockdowns, reducing social interaction, wearing masks and, since about a year, vaccinating. Globally speaking, this strategy may have had its use in the early stages of the pandemic, when there was a lot of panic and uncertainty. However, it seems that the situation has not become much brighter: we seem to turn in circles, closing and opening borders, imposing and lifting restrictions, hitting one wave after another and sliding from one so-called emergency situation into the next.

Two years have passed in which we could have analysed the structural causes underlying the severity of the Covid pandemic and its impact on our healthcare systems, and tried to tackle these causes in the long term. Because, there’s no way around it: SARS-CoV-2 is only the proverbial tree that hides the forest.

Yet we remain stuck in a pattern of short-term action. Isn’t it high time to re-examine and improve the chosen strategy? By doing this, our government(s) would not lose face, in my eyes, but rather show that they have the courage to question their own decisions when necessary.

In the search for solutions to the Covid-19 crisis, a crucial element is largely neglected, I think: its ecological dimension. Many scientists say that the virus causing the disease initially only existed in the animal kingdom but jumped from its animal hosts to humans. This happened because of the dwindling of wild nature and wildlife habitats, triggered by human expansion.

Covid-19 would thus indirectly have the same cause as climate change and other natural disasters: us, humans.

Yet few concrete or binding steps are taken to address this: many consider the outcome of the COP26 a failure; deforestation in the Amazon rainforest increased by 22% during the 2020-21 period; and the short break the Earth has had from greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 is certainly over by now.

Taking effective action to counter humanity’s destructive impact on the planet is not an easy feat, I readily admit that. Nonetheless, the health of our planet is closely linked to human health, and we know this since decades. Ignoring the problem or postponing the search for solutions on account of its complexity only heightens our chances to be hit by new - and if we are very unlucky far more lethal - pandemics in the short or medium term. This is one of the reasons why presenting vaccination as the only way out of the Covid crisis, as most governments are doing right now, seems not only too simplistic but also short-sighted.

A balance of fears

Furthermore, we should put a halt to the unhealthy atmosphere of fear that has been created around Covid-19. True, the illness can be very severe, and many people have unfortunately fallen victim to it. Nonetheless, it is by now clear that the majority of people get through Covid-19 unharmed. Publishing daily numbers of contaminations, patients in the hospital, in intensive care, and deaths - in a very general way: apart from age, gender and vaccination status not much is publicly known about the profile of hospitalized Covid patients - contributes to a paralyzing feeling of fear, which prevents any rational debate about the pandemic and possible solutions to it, both between individuals and on a higher, decision-making level.

Also, we – and with that I principally mean media and politicians – should stop using anecdotical ‘evidence’ to justify the health measures taken and to discredit or silence critical voices. Individual cases and their outcomes shouldn’t be the basis of general policy.

We know since the beginning of the pandemic that severe Covid-19 is closely linked to a number of specific health issues. While age is often mentioned as the main risk factor, so-called lifestyle diseases, typical for Western and industrialized countries, and in particular overweight and obesity seem to be quite decisive too, especially in younger people.

In the European Union, 53% of the population is overweight, and 18% is obese. In Latin-America, these numbers are 58% and 23% respectively, and in the US we reach a sad 70% and 40%. This obesity pandemic has worsened the impact of Covid-19. Currently, waistline responsibility is placed on the individual: if you are fat, it is your fault. However, as so often, things are not that simple. Instead of making individuals feel guilty, we need to change the environment that favours overweight and lifestyle diseases: reduce pollution, tackle poverty and social inequalities, limit the power of the food industry, tax junk food, redesign urban architecture, really promote soft mobility et cetera.

Helping citizens to correctly evaluate their own health would be a good idea, for instance through a simple, regular check-up with their general practitioner.

Reducing the subjective fear and the emotional treatment of Covid-related news would also favour constructive discussions, where rational criticism has its place. To date, opponents of the current Covid policy are more or less systematically labelled as pro-conspiracy, extreme right, irresponsible, unqualified or stupid. We seem to forget that no-one is vaccinated against incorrect thoughts or making mistakes, not even the most respected expert.

Weighing the scales

News coverage of demonstrations or other kinds of protest is often similarly biased. It is sad that the white marches in Luxembourg for instance have been described in a condescending tone (“thousands of people acclaiming the controversial Dr. Ochs”), when – tribute to the Luxembourg Wurst – the biggest demonstration in Luxembourgish history before the white marches was the 200-person queue in front of the Louis Vuitton store after the first lockdown.

A side-step-observation: two people that I know personally and who are experiencing significant health problems since receiving their Covid vaccine, have met with a refusal from their doctors to report these probable adverse side-effects, saying that they are, indirectly, under a lot of pressure in order not to do so. I am aware that I just pleaded against anecdotal evidence as a basis for general health policy or silence criticism. However, this is not about establishing any policy, and I am the one trying to raise a point for thought here. Moreover, if just I, with my limited social network, already personally know two such cases, they could be less anecdotal than, say, the two children under 5 who died with Covid since the beginning of the pandemic in Québec (by which I do not at all mean to minimize the tragedy of losing a child), right?

Similarly, I repeatedly noticed that conversation partners do not dare to reveal any critical thoughts - until they see that I am not going to denounce them, attack them or call them selfish, irresponsible, or a 'covidiot'. When the general atmosphere becomes so suffocating and intolerant that critical voices fall silent, we should be alarmed.

In order to avoid any misunderstanding: I am not talking about any conspiracy here, just want to point out that indirectly enforced self-censorship can lead to a misleading impression of unanimity. And I regret that when doctors or scientists express scepticism, they are quickly labelled as ‘controversial’, even those who enjoyed respect and were considered experts in their field of activity before. This phenomenon is certainly not the sign of an evil global plan, but is definitely grist to the mill of those who want to believe that.

Actually controversial, in my eyes, is the main concrete health solution chosen. Mass vaccination is presented as the holy grail, the only way out of the pandemic. However, it becomes clearer every day that this is wishful thinking. While the very respectable Dr Schockmel declared in April 2021 that it was almost certain that vaccinated people could not contaminate others, reality seems to say otherwise. Hence, the ubiquitous phrase "I get vaccinated to protect others" sounds increasingly hollow.

However, the newly developed vaccines definitely reduce severe forms of Covid-19. It is therefore wise to advise vaccination to persons-at-risk: for them the benefits clearly outweigh the possible risks linked with vaccines that have received, for the time being, only a conditional or emergency-use marketing authorization.

On the other hand, it seems cautious not to vaccinate people who carry very little risk of developing severe Covid. Indeed, medical knowledge is evolving continuously, and time – needed to get a clear picture of possible side effects of any preventive or curative medication – simply cannot be accelerated. Hence, I personally disagree with the often-heard statement that Covid vaccines are safe. They very well may be, but we simply don’t know yet.

Lacking transparency

Moreover, the total lack of transparency during contract negotiations between the European Commission and Covid vaccine manufacturers has created distrust among EU citizens. Plus, in the light of past drug scandals such as the ones surrounding Vioxx, Mediator or OxyContin, many are wary of the truthfulness and philanthropy of the pharmaceutical industry. Can we really blame them?

Another side-step-remark: Covid-19 vaccine producers have made enormous profits thanks to the pandemic (while benefiting mainly from international public funding to develop their vaccines), and certain well-known multinationals and already-billionaires also made astronomical amounts of money over the last two years. Therefore, I can but applaud a recent international proposal calling for special taxes on such astronomical benefits. These taxes could serve to provide poor countries with medication, improve their healthcare and social systems, combat poverty, or reimburse part of the huge public debts that states have contracted to fight the pandemic.

Back to vaccination. I am saddened by the constant hardening of tone towards the non-vaccinated. Until last summer, everyone could participate equally in social life. Then arrived the “3G” rule, next the large-scale-testing facilities closed and tests had to be paid for individually, and now the non-vaccinated are practically excluded from social life altogether and have to pay to have the right to enter their workplace.

Slowly but surely, an unhealthy and unwarranted segregation of our society is emerging. It worries me to see that many people seem to need, and have found, a scape-goat for the seemingly never-ending pandemic, while many non-vaccinated people feel discriminated against and treated like second-class citizens, and are becoming angry. How long will it take for the gap that has opened up between citizens, family members, friends, to close again, and will it do so without leaving scars?

Equally regrettable is the recent trend towards a more or less generalized mandatory vaccination, here in Luxembourg. A panel of five Luxembourgish doctors recommended such an obligation for people over 50 years old and healthcare professionals, even though only few European countries seem to follow the same path (maybe because they are not well advised?).

I believe that not only will such an obligation not allow to eradicate SARS-CoV-2 (as our expert panel conceded), but it can expose healthy people, who could cope very well with an infection, to subsequent health problems.

The perspective of mandatory vaccination has some not health-related side effects, too. For instance, the fact that an appreciable number of non-vaccinated people voluntarily catch Covid-19, in order to obtain the precious certificate of recovery that will give them back (at least for 6 months) the rights they have gradually lost. Then, there is the social unfairness of the testing obligation for non-vaccinated people in order to be able to go to work - a cleaning lady, let’s say, cannot as easily spend between 400 and 600 EUR per month as a banker - and the tensions it creates - stress for the non-vaccinated, irritation on the part of employers and colleagues, exhaustion among the staff of pharmacies, laboratories and testing centres etc. Furthermore, through CovidCheck, a gigantic control system is set up. Once again, not as a result of a ‘bigger plan’, but nonetheless with yet unknown consequences.

Is this the start of a semi-permanent state of control and more or less arbitrary targeting of certain population groups, over the course of successive “emergencies”? We have witnessed this already with certain restrictions and rules that were introduced as emergency measures after the attack on the World Trade Center, and have remained in force since.

To sum up, vaccination is definitely part of the solution, but it is not the only remedy nor the miracle answer it is said to be. Unless we improve the general health and living conditions of the world’s inhabitants and the state of our public health systems, the same population groups will be vulnerable again during future pandemics, and health systems and healthcare professionals will again be under unacceptable pressure. And unless we reduce our human impact on the planet, global disruptive phenomena, such as pandemics or other disasters, will continue to happen.

Questions remain

In the end, I’m mainly left with questions. Will the exclusion of a part of the population end when a certain vaccination coverage is attained? Or will it then be decided that everyone needs a fourth dose, or a fifth, and so on? Is it normal that one has to pay in order to be able to go to work? Is it normal that ordinary, sane people that cannot afford to pay for the G of ‘getestet’ and do not want to get vaccinated, feel forced to try and catch Covid in order not to be excluded from society?

Is it acceptable that ordinary citizens, such as restaurant owners or waiters, have to enforce the new rules and take on the role of law officers? Is it acceptable that suggestions such as “non-vaccinated persons should have to pay themselves for healthcare if they fall sick with Covid” or proposals for taxing non-vaccinated people ‘because they are a burden for society’ can be made publicly and do not seem to shock that many people? Is it ok that a president calls non-vaccinated people a pain in the arse and ‘non-citizens’, or that a prime minister declares that he wants to make life difficult for non-vaccinated people? Can we really go back to the way we lived before, frenetically travelling, consuming, exploiting other human beings and destroying natural resources, closing our eyes for the wall that we are thus bound to hit?

I would like to call our politicians to show the courage to acknowledge and tackle the forest hidden behind the Covid tree.

I would like to ask us all to summon up the intellectual honesty to admit that our convictions may not be the Truth, to challenge them, and to allow for doubt. “Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum”: we all know the middle bit of this sentence by Descartes (I took the liberty to omit the end about God), but few of us know its beginning. Doubt, though, is a key driver of discovery and knowledge.

Finally, I would like to plead for us all to honour our humanity, showing kindness towards ourselves and others, and abandoning fear and judgment for openness and empathy. We are all in the same boat, after all.

* Copocritic is an abbreviation for ‘Covid policy critic’. Alternative name for people who prefer not to be called antivaxx, conspiracy theorist or stupid. French suggestion: ‘copocritique’.

This opinion article was written by RTL Today reader Julia Winston. The views expressed are those of the author.