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The new divide: whether or not to vaccinate

09 November 2021

In his newest blog, chairman Ron Bormans responds to a letter he received from a lecturer, who is concerned about the social divide resulting from the discussion about whether or not to be vaccinated. A subject that concerns us all. Ron Bormans is open to discussing this topic with more colleagues.

These are the times we live in. A time when my GP is under threat. Not only a verbal threat. The door has been shot at with an air rifle, and arson was attempted. He is a kind man, who speaks out for vaccination, vaccinates his own patients, and has initiated actions to help Africa. A general practitioner who was alert and made important decisions for our family. We live in a time when goodness is confronted with evil.

We live in a time when we have to do our best to keep everything running smoothly. This is a duty imposed on a social institution such as the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Here’s how we interpret our legal duty: we are here for everyone. It is called ‘the desire to be inclusive’. We are sometimes asked whether this intention is real and whether we are in fact inclusive. This institution, I often refer to as the village in the city, exudes Rotterdam, is Rotterdam in all its diversity, and sometimes it is hard work to hold everything together. But the intention is present, and we are actually succeeding quite well. Time and time again we have shown that we can discuss painful, social issues with each other in relative peace.

But sometimes it is difficult to shape the appropriate attitude for inclusiveness. There are limits to inclusiveness and there are game rules: treat each other with respect; be open to individuality; violence is fundamentally wrong; we argue on the basis of the basic values of higher education such as validity and reliability of statements, and so on.  And we seek a translation of these rules for the realities of school life, where you are allowed to, and will make mistakes. We try to create a pedagogical climate in which we can discuss mistakes, make biases visible and seek mutual understanding in the openness of the conversation.

Bias is always lurking. Covid-19 has introduced a new category in this respect. The bias towards non-vaccinated people is growing, in communications often reduced to 'wappies' (having views contrary to the mainstream), with the effect that everyone in that category is lumped together. I feel that tendency too, when my GP's door is shot at, when the infection rate rises again, when I witness the mudslinging that someone like Hugo de Jonge has to deal with. In such cases it is a good that that we have a culture of openness that prevents what is always lurking: generalisation. The mechanism that lies at the root of prejudice, racism, and generic exclusion.

The Executive Board recently received the following letter from a colleague, which I am publishing here with the colleague's consent: 

Dear Executive Board members, Dear members of the Central Representative Board,

I hesitated for a long time whether to send this personal letter. Nowadays, it is almost like a coming-out, and loss of anonymity. I am now putting myself in a vulnerable place. Nevertheless, in view of tonight's press conference (Tuesday 2 November) and in the light of 'the general public interest', I feel compelled to send you this e-mail.

Because as an employee, I no longer feel 'safe'. I worry about the image that has been created in society of the unvaccinated. I worry about my freedom to make a personal choice. And I worry about my right as a citizen and employee to be treated the same as everyone else.

"That's really not going to happen in the Netherlands', 'Certainly not, you mustn't be so doom and gloom'. These are the words that I myself regularly uttered during the past year when talking to a 'wappie' in my surroundings. And yet we have now reached a point where there is talk of excluding unvaccinated people from social life and work. In some other countries of the world, it has even happened already.

As people often do not get past the question "Why don't you get vaccinated then?", I will briefly answer that question. The answer is in the box at the bottom of the letter.

We are all human

Actually, the question of 'why a person does not get vaccinated' is irrelevant to the point I am trying to make. We are all human beings, whether a person is someone like me who has made a rationally based decision, whether a person who believes in conspiracies, has religious beliefs, or has specific health complaints. A person may not want or perhaps cannot be vaccinated. And we all have universal rights. We are entitled to equal treatment and the freedom to make choices. And we make those choices every day as human beings. About our health, about our planet and about each other. If we reduce the pandemic to 'a choice' of the unvaccinated, we are demonising a group. We are simplifying a complex problem with multiple causes into a one-sided accusation. 

An inclusive educational institution

In recent weeks, I have been able to discuss this subject with some vaccinated colleagues, fortunately in a nuanced and free manner. This gives me confidence in the open mentality that prevails at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, or at least within my study programme. But more than once I heard a response along the lines of “I've been vaccinated myself and I don't think it's normal to talk about the unvaccinated like this, but I almost don't dare say it because before you know it you are put in the 'wappie' corner”. By the way, I use the term 'wappie' to clarify the image that prevails, not to put down a group of people in a nasty way.

So, it is not only the freedom of choice of the unvaccinated that is under pressure, but also the freedom of expression of people who have a moderate voice in the debate. Every week, my students do a presentation in pairs in the classroom about what they have noticed in the media. COVID-19 has come up several times. The prevailing opinion in the class - regardless of whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated - is that the framing of the unvaccinated creates a divide in society.

I have always been proud that as Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences we present ourselves as an inclusive school. For example, one of my students has a disability but does feel seen and recognised by us. This student now has confidence in his studies, in contrast to the situation at another university of applied sciences where this student used to study.

What is considered ‘normal’?

I miss a powerful voice in the media and in politics - people of stature who speak out about polarisation, about exclusion. If we all support the right to freedom and equality, then that must stand for something. We all must take ownership of a complex problem, and not put the blame on one group. Political decisiveness is needed to structurally support the healthcare sector and make it more resilient; we all need to take more account of each other, and we all ought to live in a healthier way, and more responsibly.

Of course, there is no one simple solution, and in these times drastic measures are necessary. We are stuck in a convergent way of thinking: for twenty months a select group has been giving advice and making decisions. Many roads lead to Rome. A more profound social conversation, in which empathic listening and ethics play a role, as we also teach our students, can no longer be dismissed under the guise of 'we do not have the time for discussion’ when we have been in this situation for so long. We have to diverge again and look for a different narrative if we don't want a divided society.

A large proportion of people with COVID-19 in hospital are not vaccinated, that is a fact. But: both vaccinated (which still makes up a significant proportion of admissions - no small matter in this day and age where every bed is important) and unvaccinated people are mainly those with poor health, advanced age, underlying conditions, diabetes, or high BMI. A solidary and unifying narrative would therefore be to say: vaccinated or unvaccinated, TOGETHER we protect people with weaker health.

Politician, Sigrid Kaag, exercised her right to speak at the trial about threatening politicians. She wanted to raise the point that we need to move towards a new norm. A norm in which we do not think that 'threats are just part of being a politician', but a norm in which we say: 'This is not normal'.

My question to you

I would like us to follow her example and reclaim the standard of equality and freedom in society. That we all start saying: 'It is not normal to point the finger of blame at one group and publicly condemn them. We don't do that'.

And I would like you, the board of an inclusive institution, to reflect on this issue. I hope that when measures of exclusion of the unvaccinated are discussed in the workplace in higher education, or anywhere else for that matter, you will continue to stand for inclusiveness. 

Kind regards,

Natascha Leenstra

Vaccinating healthy people for a disease in which the risk of serious illness for them is very small and which has not yet undergone long-term clinical analysis is, in my opinion, fundamentally different from vaccinations from the National Programme and travel vaccinations that have had proven results and known side effects for years. Therefore, during the summer holidays, I immersed myself in the academic literature (on both COVID-19 and the vaccines) that I could find in our library databases and also kept up to date with new insights.

My decision not to vaccinate is a thorough risk analysis of the risk to someone of my age, my health, and my vitality of ending up in an ICU, the possibility of negative long-term effects of the vaccine on the overall immune system, and the social risk to someone else.

My provisional conclusion is that, based on current scientific knowledge and virus variants, I would rather get natural immunity than get the vaccine. And that I pose no more risk to others than vaccinated people do, as long as I take care to do preventive self-tests, am careful when socialising with people in poorer health and get tested at the GGD in case of health problems.

Dear Natascha,

I try not to blame anyone for anything. Except the kind of people who shoot at GPs' front doors; try to start fires; accuse him of genocide in letters; people who permanently threaten others like Hugo de Jonge and Marion Koopmans. Fortunately, I do not know these people, but I do know people who, by weighing things up with integrity, have come to different conclusions than I have. I add you to that list and feel extra strengthened and motivated to counter the threat of generalisation. 

We all find ourselves in the same boat, and we must indeed work together to make sure that the storm at sea dies down and that we can get out of the boat safely and get back on track. That is a complicated process, and no one knows exactly what will provide the solution. That is what we have learned from recent times. As Chairman of the Executive Board, I do think that vaccination can be an important part of working towards a solution. This is not a private view, but I follow the prevailing view of science, with its current values of validity and reliability. But the issue is more complex than whether or not we are in favour of vaccination. In the Netherlands we have constitutional protection against forced vaccination. That, to me, is a given. 

But there is even more to it than that. There is also such a thing as the right to education and it is my job to shape that education as well as possible. In another context, I have sometimes called this right to education 'constitutional'. We have arrived at a situation where values are conflicting: one person's right conflicts with another's right. One person's freedom restricts another's freedom. Freedom of choice comes with consequences. In your letter I read of a responsible choice not to vaccinate because you are aware of those conflicts in values thus you take the responsibility to protect yourself and your fellow man in a different way: keeping your distance, for example. Bravo! But that is not the social reality across the board. By claiming a fundamental right - however justified - people cannot claim to have the same rights or degrees of freedom. If we were to claim that, then schools would soon be closed. And we would be violating that other fundamental right, with all its consequences. 

It is simple really. A higher number of vaccinated people, with a diminishing effect on the rate of infections, makes it easier for us to keep our doors open to people who study and work in our buildings. If the rate of infection rises even further, there is a good chance that we must soon keep a distance of 1.5 metres within our buildings. This means that we will have less space and will only be able to stay open for practical education and one-to-one consultations, for example. This would mean that a certain cohort of students would soon have to establish that they have had online lessons for the most part. Vaccinating can help prevent that from happening. So can inviting people to do so. By the way, something like compulsory testing might also help, something that I think we too easily place in the same principled sphere as vaccination. 

Your letter helps. Your letter helps me. Your letter helps in realising that inclusiveness is a value that we must do justice to even in difficult, tense circumstances. The courage you show in writing this letter, the reasonableness of your argument, are additional reasons for us to be alert that an institution that wants to be there for everyone must also be there for people who have good reasons not to be vaccinated. I cannot guarantee that Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences will never be forced to ask for proof of vaccination or proof of testing. I was the one who insisted that we think carefully about that. Please know that in doing so, I am also insisting on thinking about what this means for people who have valid reasons for not wanting the above: they too have a right to education, they too have a right to be treated with respect, they too have an equal right to be part of the village that is Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.

I would like to invite you to continue the dialogue with me. We can then also discuss how we can talk about this topic with more staff and students.

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