In this week’s volunteer interview, volunteer Jelle Liens discusses the COVID situation in Belgium, Belgian culture, and the role of social media in misinformation. (Interview has been edited for length.)
Gavriel: Tell me a little about yourself. Where do you live and what do you do with your time?
Jelle: I’m in Brussels, Belgium. I take care of my grandparents and other people in need in my surroundings, and I study computer languages. Both issues are difficult to manage during the pandemic.
Gavriel: How did you learn about 1Day Sooner and decide to sign up?
Jelle: At the very beginning of the pandemic, I saw an interview with Abie [Rohrig] on CNN. It got me looking on the internet, and that’s where I bumped into 1Day Sooner. At the time, I was in difficult personal situations with my surroundings, and it really got me thinking, people around me depend on me but I can’t give them what they need — I can’t give them a vaccine as soon as possible. It got me thinking about human challenge trials. We don’t get the information as fast as we need with clinical trials. Nothing against clinical trials, they work, but they cannot be the only tool. Other tools can be ethical as well, to get more data and the information we need.
Gavriel: Would it be fair to say that you decided to sign up on the basis of your desire to help the people around you?
Jelle: In one way, yes, but in another way, it’s also the information. This is the 21st century and technology has improved, but it seems like paternalistic viewpoints keep pushing through and it’s not getting us the information we need about correlates [of protection]. It’s all about how the individual must be protected and that’s not something I can agree with. The collective reward that we get from a clinical trial is not enough. We have a vaccine, which is good for a company, but for the entire world, the information we are collecting is not enough.
Gavriel: What types of public health policies would you advocate for, or just public health changes in general would you like to see?
Jelle: I’m really for the structural side of things. Anything and everything that is just, not only inside the country but outside the country, that’s what I want to see. Knowledge and structures that are guaranteed to protect me, but also everything and everyone else. I’m not safe unless everybody’s safe. I want to feel safe, and I don’t know if that’s a selfish thing to think or if it’s an altruistic thing to think. I see it as collective selfishness.
Gavriel: What is the pandemic situation like in Belgium right now?
Jelle: Horrible. The vaccination rate is at 75% but the cases are horrible. The population density is so high. It’s between the Netherlands, Germany, and France, and across the Channel from England. All commerce comes through Belgium in one way or another, so that means disease comes through Belgium one way or another. It’s a diverse population, plus it’s a political center of Europe, which brings in international and diplomatic traffic. So it’s a flash point. It seems like the only thing that’s going to do it is having 80% of the total population vaccinated, and booster shots for everyone, because 75% vaccination rate is not going to cut it.
Gavriel: Do you think people have been pretty aware of the danger, and good at following precautions?
Jelle: That’s a very difficult question for where Belgium is concerned. The political situation in Belgium is quite complicated. There’s a high resentment in the French part of the country and a high tolerance toward vaccines in the Dutch part of the country but generalizing works counterproductive. There have been many reasons from the past why discrimination might occur, according to culture, according to language, according to religion, whatever. Belgium has always been a country of separated togetherness. We have the kind of attitude where unity makes strength, as long as you don’t push our faces together. The country we really look to is Portugal, who has 88% of the total population totally vaccinated. Spain and Denmark are also extraordinary examples to look at. France had a difficult start, because of their hesitancy. It’s all going to come down to convincing people, and people are people everywhere. You might think you have your cultural thing, but it’s all about convincing people.
Gavriel: Do you see repeated reasons for vaccine hesitancy among the population of Belgium?
Jelle: It’s not that different from what I see in the US or any other country. It’s because of confusion. I’ve just spoken to my mother, and she’s been vaccinated, she knows how vaccines work, but now that I got COVID, she asks me, “So does this mean your vaccine has expired and no longer works?” In the end she goes, “ I just wanted a reaction.” And that’s the point. They just want to provoke a reaction. Some people don’t care about the truth even if they know the truth.
Gavriel: Sometimes you want to push to see if there’s any extra information you can get. I wouldn’t call that vaccine hesitancy.
Jelle: Communication is both the problem and the solution. If you keep pushing for extra information eventually you get to anxiety, confusion, misinformation and hesitancy.
Gavriel: How can it be better?
Jelle: People are addicted to pushing the like button and to getting likes. They don’t care if they got something right or wrong. They’re feeling lonely partly because of social media and also partly because of COVID. They want the “like” and they see it as a genuine reaction. That’s the problem. There’s no truth for someone who wants a hug. If you want a hug, the only truth is that you want a hug and you don’t care about the rest.
Gavriel: Are you saying that this tendency of social media is a public health problem, and that part of the public health problem is that people want connection and don’t know how to get it, or are looking in the wrong places?
Jelle: Yes. That’s what it comes down to. Mental health issues are exacerbated by social media and the pandemic, which is having a real effect on self care, which leads to health problems, so there’s a vicious circle going on. Whatever you say on Facebook is eternally out there, regardless of whether you changed your mind or how many times you yourself debunked it. To anyone who’s looking, that moment is who you are. Although people are a collection of moments and they are also more than that. Personal growth isn’t seen online– you can always look back so every communication error stays. It’s also become one big circular problem of oversimplification. A “like” has become an oversimplified hug, but is it really a substitute? And can a genuine, nuanced reaction be equated to a “like” or a meme? For some the answer has become “yes”. The idea of evolving truth to deal with reality no longer enters the equation for a lot of people on social media, they demand one oversimplified truth.
Gavriel: You talked about vaccine equity — what do you see as the connection between vaccine equity and challenge trials?
Jelle: We need to highlight context more. For me, human challenge trials and vaccine equity go hand in hand. You need the context of vaccine equity in order to get a moral argument for human challenge trials. At the same time, you need human challenge trials to defend vaccine equity. It would be inconsiderate not to consider human challenge trials in a vaccine equitable world.
Gavriel: Can you tell me something you love about where you live?
Jelle: I love the multiculturalism. You can go out and bump into someone and excuse yourself in German, then talk to somebody in Dutch and French at the same time, be confused by some Spaniards passing by, then meet some Turkish or Moroccan children. You can experience every culture in one day. The food is the best in the world. We have the most types of beer and cheese, and we have the best chocolate in the world. I’m proud of my city. Next to New York, we’re the international diplomatic point of balance in the world.
Gavriel: It’s so funny to me you say you like it politically, because Belgium couldn’t form a government!
Jelle: And yet we managed to survive! You people go without a government for two days and you start to fall apart. We did 500 days and nobody broke a sweat, nobody cared. To us, surrealism is not an art form, it’s a way of life. There’s always at least three cultural ways to look at things. What’s the most dangerous thing for one culture is not necessarily the most dangerous from the other perspective, so we live in compromise. If you have a problem, you get caught up in some blockage in line at the metro or supermarket, someone will put up their hand and ask, “Does anyone speak this language, please?” And someone usually shows up with that language! That’s true in everyday politics as well, you deal with the issue at hand. Governments are there for handling the long term, not everyday life.
Gavriel: What are some things that you are curious about, or things you like to learn about?
Jelle: Computer programming. Also, since I’m on the autism spectrum, communication is not always my thing, so I concentrate on the theory part of it and it fascinates me how people can neglect some of the most basic things they’re capable of, and how they go overboard sometimes. Communication is something that’s a very open field and there are a lot of things to talk about, like COVID and vaccines but also peace, war, famine, other medical issues, mental health issues, global warming, discimination — everything comes down to communication, gaining knowledge and building structures, and at the moment we’re failing in each and every one of them, so definitely something you need to look at if you want to improve things.
Gavriel: Is there anything you wanted to add before we wrap up?
Jelle: I am agnostic. I read the article you sent with Alicia, she mentioned she was a Quaker. Had no idea what that is, I was very interested. I thought, wow, what kind of range do we have on a theological, philosophical level at 1Day Sooner? It’s something that stood out to me. There’s a wide room to discuss things. I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of us.