To mark the national Day of the Volunteer Carer (Dag van de Mantelzorg) on Wednesday, the health minister, Hugo De Jonge, paid a surprise visit to a nursing home in Papendrecht. The photographs show a relaxed Hugo laughing and chatting with the residents, seemingly without a care in the world, and certainly without a face mask or any sense that social distancing might be advisable. On the same day, 12,648 positive Covid tests were recorded in the Netherlands, the highest one-day figure since last December. It was at that moment that I realised that De Jonge was a man drunk on his own publicity.
There has been much talk lately of a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’. In essence it’s an accurate term: unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to end up in hospital with Covid-19 and 33 times more likely to need treatment in intensive care. But its logic has been twisted to justify a division of society which is politically suspect and medically unsound. Vaccinated people are no longer required to test for the virus before going to a bar, restaurant, cinema or theatre. But there they come into contact with unvaccinated people who can enter with a negative test result. And as a result, the virus continues to circulate. De Volkskrant on Friday gave the example of a gathering of 50 people at the Hoge Vuursche castle in Baarn. Every one of them produced a green tick QR code on entry; more than half subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
Vaccination was sold as a passport to freedom. When the ‘test for entry’ system was brought in on September 25, protective measures such as wearing masks and social distancing were abolished. It was supposed to nudge people into being vaccinated, but since they were still able to go out with a negative test, and many venues weren’t even bothering to check, the vaccination rate barely increased. And that didn’t address the fundamental flaw in the QR system. A system designed to enable access could never safely replace a system designed to restrict it. You probably still lock your front door even after you’ve installed an alarm. Other countries retained some low-level social restrictions because they understood that the reduced risk of infection in vaccinated people was still a risk. But the Dutch were in thrall to the idea that the vaccine offered salvation in a syringe, elevating them to a state of grace that the virus could not penetrate, a belief epitomised by those photographs of a unmasked health minister sitting too close to elderly people in a nursing home.
Just how badly the government had tied itself in knots became evident as cases started to rise again in October, immediately after social distancing was abolished. Vaccinated people were outraged at any hint of new restrictions. They had been told that the return of ‘normal life’ was their reward for doing the government’s bidding: why should their freedom be taken away because others had refused the vaccine? Any new rules should be applied to the unvaccinated, not to them. The original argument for vaccination – to protect the entire society from disease through herd immunity – was replaced by a new, adversarial rationale. This was partly possible because the concept of ‘herd immunity’ had been redefined and associated with the anti-vaxxer movement. People no longer saw the vaccine as a mechanism to protect others, but as a way of unlocking and securing rewards for themselves. Rewards which had to be protected at all costs from the selfish, deluded unvaccinated.
In the first wave, ministers told us we had to protect the vulnerable. In the current wave, the unvaccinated have become the vulnerable. But isolating the unvaccinated will fail for the same reason that isolating the elderly failed: asymptomatic transmission. The statistics on deaths in nursing homes and among people claiming WLZ (lifelong care) support last year are a damning indictment of the failure of that strategy. If we restrict unvaccinated people while the virus spreads freely among the vaccinated, we will fail again. The only way to bring down numbers from the kind of level they are at now is by limiting contacts throughout society.
In a free society, vaccination must be a choice. But that creates a dilemma, because there is clearly a good and a bad choice. In nearly every age group and segment of society, the risks associated with the disease are many times greater than the risk of taking the vaccine. And real herd immunity, to restore its proper meaning, has only ever been achieved through vaccination, not natural infection. The question of whether to have the jab for yourself or for others is irrelevant: it protects both. Your reward is not the freedom to go out to a bar, a restaurant, or the cinema: it’s the good health that many people, even 18 months into a pandemic, still take for granted. Until enough people are vaccinated, public health will have to be protected in other ways, and leaky access codes won’t do it. You can refuse to accept vaccines or you can refuse to accept lockdowns, but reality does not permit both. Get the vaccine.