An interview with Vicky van de Togt
You might not know it, but there’s a vast, well-organised international grassroots effort to address the gaps in our governments’ response to COVID.
I spoke to Vicky van der Togt, founder of the Zero Covid Alliance and a central figure in this grassroots mobilisation, to learn more about how it works, the victories they’ve had so far, and how anyone can get involved. We also talk about the Zero COVID strategy, COVID myth-busting, and Vicky’s own experience of the disease.
It was a fascinating chat – despite the audio issues – and I hope you’ll find it as eye-opening as I did.
About the podcast
Transcript of the interview
VICKY: I’m Vicky. I live in the Netherlands. I worked as a communications expert and I used to run a platform for sustainable living.
But then last year, in March, I got hit by COVID. I got infected. This was back when in the Netherlands, they talked about COVID as if it was the flu, and it only hit the elderly. That made me think, well, I’m only 28… if it only hits the elderly, then why am I so sick? So that started to get me thinking on all of this.
MEHRAN: That was last March that you got COVID. But you’re still suffering from the symptoms of COVID today.
VICKY: Yes. I’m still suffering. That’s really the thing about COVID that a lot of people still don’t know about, sadly. It really hits a lot of people my age as well, and kids as well. And they go on to have long-term symptoms.
And these are not necessarily the people that end up in the hospital. So they don’t end up in the data, with hospital admissions.
So that got me thinking, if I am in that group that’s not being talked about, how many people are in this situation?
MEHRAN: And you started your grassroots action with a Twitter poll. Tell us about that.
VICKY: So back in March , I was already sick and I spent my days online. And I saw so many people mentioning that they were sick at home. And they didn’t have access to testing.
I decided to do a Twitter poll. I got so many responses. 400 people.
These numbers showed that we didn’t really have a clue how many people were sick at that moment. I reached out to a journalist, who decided to reach out to our CDC to see how many people were tested.
MEHRAN: The Centre for Disease Control equivalent in Holland.
VICKY: Yeah. At that point, they only did 3000 tests, most of them people that they tested twice or even three times. That gives you an idea of how unclear it was, the amount that were already infected.
It’s crazy that we were dealing with such a severe disease and the organisations that were there to protect us, weren’t doing their job! And at that point I was still, like "I live in the Netherlands, with a good healthcare system”. But yeah, that bubble burst really quickly.
MEHRAN: And so this kicked off a series of grassroots actions that you did, first at local level, culminating in you creating at the end of last year the Zero COVID Alliance.
VICKY: In the Netherlands there was this group, pushing against the chosen strategy. And back then, there were only a couple of groups worldwide doing the same thing. Of course I was sick for the first couple of months, so I wasn’t a member from the start. But when I joined, it was evident that we were the only ones out there fighting against this.
So we decided, if we want to show the outside world what’s happening in our countries, we really have to amplify our voices, with international collaboration.
So first I had the hope that someone else would take this on, and would make this umbrella organisation, of all these COVID efforts around the world. But nothing was happening. So, I just decided to do it myself.
The Zero Covid Alliance is to do advocacy work, is to educate people, is to support people, is to provide resources, PPE, information, about how to deal with this virus.
The Zero Covid Strategy, and the challenges involved
MEHRAN: Can you explain what is the Zero COVID strategy?
VICKY: A Zero COVID movement means that we want to contain this virus. And get to a low amount of numbers so that we can go back to normal life.
Because what the chosen strategy has done for most countries is that we ended up in these yo-yo lockdowns. Most countries implemented lockdowns, and then cases fell, and then they opened up again. But that is not a sustainable strategy. It just makes sure that we keep in this circle. And in between, it’s not safe for all of us, because everyone that’s at risk has a risk of either becoming severely sick from their initial disease, or getting Long COVID .
MEHRAN: Zero COVID, this is not a fringe movement. Jeremy Corbyn is a proponent of this strategy. There are countries outside Europe that are successfully striving for Zero COVID… New Zealand is the example that always gets mentioned, but also countries across Asia.
So, tell me about the people that are involved in the movement.
VICKY: Yeah, there are big names involved. There are scientists involved, there are journalists involved. Politicians, you name it. We even have some A-list celebrities who got Long COVID themselves. So they know how serious this disease is.
If you ask anyone who has worked with infectious disease, they all know that the way to deal with this is to contain it. This is the way to go. Because we’ve seen that the alternative hasn’t worked.
MEHRAN: We’re talking about competing strategies of living with the virus and eliminating the virus. Why do you think that first option is the trajectory that European governments are on at the moment?
VICKY: It is really a short term plan. A lot of governments now have seen how their economies have really suffered due to this virus, and they want a quick fix. So reopening shops or reopening the bars and restaurants, it seems like an easy fix. But really in the long-term, it will cause suffering. If you end up in a lock down because of that reopening, you will have to do it all over again.
Of course, there are also lobby groups involved, pressuring governments around the world to reopen as quickly as possible. There are a lot of reasons why a government would decide not to go for a Zero COVID strategy. I just haven’t heard a good one yet.
MEHRAN: Imagine I’m a decision maker and I say, “OK Vicky, I’m going to listen to you. Tell me the top three things I need to do to get on board with this Zero COVID strategy right now”. What would you say to me?
VICKY: What we have to do is go back to these measures that break this chain of infections. A safe amount of time for quarantine would be ten days. And we even see now with the UK variant, there is a need for 20 days. We have to trace and isolate people that got infected.
These are the basic principles of how to deal with infectious diseases. All of this is stated in pandemic plans from governments around the world. So they really know how to do it. Now it’s just a matter of them actually acting on it.
MEHRAN: But from a strategic communications point of view, I would imagine that it might be quite hard to convince people, who are weary of — as you call it — ‘yo-yo lockdowns’ without end dates, and businesses which are close to bankruptcy or gone. To say: ‘Well, here’s a harder lockdown enforced, and a stricter regime of testing and tracing’, and so on.
So, how do you square that circle in the campaign?
VICKY: I hear what you’re saying. And that is also a result of the last year. People have already heard everything about lockdowns, how it was going to be temporary.
But when you really look at the type of lockdowns that countries have implemented, it hasn’t actually been a lockdown. And the communication that goes with that, has also been lacking.
So what is necessary is a 180 change. Proactively informing your population on what you’re doing. Where outbreaks are.
One of the things that really stood out to us, as a movement, is how governments around the world decided not to keep track of outbreaks in schools. And therefore parents don’t actually know, if there is an outbreak in their school, how many infections there are and what the school is going to do about it.
Grassroots wins against COVID
MEHRAN:You have some examples of grassroots groups that have stepped in to fill this gap, with regard to reporting the number of cases in schools.
These are informal groups. They’re not NGOs, there’s no funding. They’re just parents who’ve got together.
What did they do and how did it work?
VICKY: In the Netherlands we have a school hotline run by a group of concerned parents. Who decided to work with a data company to enable parents throughout the country to report infections in their schools.
And this is happening in Germany. In Canada as well. And there is now another initiative in Switzerland.
It is great that this is happening. But it is really sad that it is necessary, just because governments aren’t willing to do it themselves.
MEHRAN: There was another example, a legal case, that you were involved in I think, in Holland. About prosecuting parents for keeping their kids off school. Tell me about that.
Yeah, so in the Netherlands, we have mandatory in-school education, even in a pandemic. That in itself wouldn’t be a problem. But at the same time, there wasn’t social distancing in schools. There wasn’t proper ventilation, kids weren’t being tested, and parents weren’t being informed about outbreaks. So parents got prosecuted for keeping their kids at home.
We decided to reach out to all these parents and take action. Luckily we found the best lawyer in the country who was willing to take this on. So we decided to sue the state. We had to do a crowdfunding campaign to fund this lawsuit. We managed to collect 20,000 euros.
Eventually we got the final verdict in January. The judge clearly came out to say that we are living in a pandemic, and it would be a shame to prosecute parents who want to keep their kids at home.
And this verdict, resulted in that mandatory education in the Netherlands is now suspended .
MEHRAN: Wow. Well done.
VICKY: Thank you.
COVID myths busted
MEHRAN: I don’t want to get back to doom and gloom, but since you’re so central to this campaign, you must be swimming in proof points and arguments and studies and data. Are there any myths that you can burst for us, when it comes to COVID?
VICKY: The biggest one probably is that, this is just the flu and we should treat it as such.
This is not influenza. This is SARS 2. It causes damage to the heart, damage to the brain. It can have long-term effects in both young and old people.
Another myth is that kids don’t transmit this virus.
And one thing I’d really like people to speak up about is that COVID is airborne. It can spread through the air. And this is not being communicated by governments.
MEHRAN: The CDC in the US has announced that it was airborne, right?
VICKY: Yeah. The CDC luckily has now come out with a statement that it is airborne. But a lot of governments still listen to their own centers for disease control. And therefore there are no measures implemented that take airborne transmission into account.
MEHRAN: What are the implications then? What are the things that we’re doing today, thinking that it’s not airborne, that are not protecting us given that it is?
VICKY: So in a lot of countries, they ask people to wear a mask in a restaurant. But when they sit down at a table, they can take off their mask and have their meal. Of course, this is not going to work with an airborne disease. It doesn’t actually do anything. You can just as well get infected at your table while eating your burger, than as you would at the door.
How anyone can join the fight against this disease
MEHRAN: What about someone that’s watching that thinks “Well look, I want to get more involved’. Where should they be reaching out?
VICKY: There are really three ways of doing it.
The first is bottom up. You try to get a sense of what is needed in your community. Are the people that are getting sick? Do they have groceries? Are they supported? That is one thing that everyone can do. When I got infected, people offered to do groceries for me. And if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be able to actually feed myself.
If you want to take it one level up, try to reach out to the local media. Write op-eds, to share the information from your country. Or you could just start with reaching out to your community centre. As long as you can keep people informed of what is going on, if you decide to be that voice, there are so many ways of making small and big changes.
And then you have the last level: top down. So reach out to policymakers. Everyone can do that. Email addresses are online, there are telephone numbers — for example, your ministry of health — that you can reach out to and share what you have seen happening. Or that you see that in your areaa that a change is needed.
MEHRAN: Something that I find is often a barrier for people to do this: they often don’t have the arguments. The links to the studies. Where would you point people to? Do you have a resource so they don’t have to spend their time doing lots of internet research?
VICKY: We have our own website, with lots of resources on there. All our partners have that as well.
At the same time, we are part of a huge international network, EndCoronaVirus. They have this Slack workspace for I think 6,000 volunteers from all around the world.
And this contains scientists, journalists, community managers. Teachers, students, people from every sector. And they all share their resources. And news from around the world, for people to get up to date on the latest things regarding COVID.
MEHRAN: The two websites that Vicky just mentioned, for people watching in case they didn’t catch it because we’re holding onto the internet connection by a thread here (!): ZeroCOVIDAlliance.org, Vicky’s umbrella group. And EndCoronaVirus.org, the US group.
I’ve been on that Slack, EndCoronaVirus.org, for several weeks now. Anybody can join and I’ve been blown away by the amount of information and data. And it’s all so well organised. So anybody that wants to get active pushing policymakers or journalist, or just to help people in the community, can certainly find proof points, arguments, strategies, tactics over there.
Choosing activism over Netflix
I’d like to ask you something Vicky, I mean more on a personal note now. You’ve got Long COVID and I understand that the symptoms kind of come and go, but they’re still pretty severe. We were going to do this interview a couple of weeks ago, and unfortunately you had to cancel because you were not well enough.
So — why do you do this? Why aren’t you just sitting, watching Netflix, trying to get better?
VICKY: You’re actually catching me on a good day. It wouldn’t have worked if we’d talked yesterday. It really changes that fast.
I’ve been on the couch for the three months that I was sick, and I think I’ve seen everything on Netflix there is to see. So I’m kind of down on series and movies. So if anyone has some recommendations, please reach out!
But why I do this… honestly, I got so sick myself, and I’ve spoken to so many people around the world, people my age, people younger, people older, who have been sick for almost a year. Some even for, what is it, 14 months now.
And collectively we want to do everything to prevent other people from feeling like us. My neighbour’s dad died from this. It hits everyone so hard.
And knowing that there is a way out of this, knowing that people are just uninformed… that has been so frustrating to me. That, honestly, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. I just had to speak up about this to do everything I can. And I just hope that as many people as possible feel the same about that.
MEHRAN: Thank you. And as a last question: do you have two or three books, articles, anything that you can recommend, where people could learn more about the topics that we’re discussing today?
VICKY: So many articles came out just on Zero COVID. So, if there’s one thing I can tell everyone, is: simply just Google it sometime. Just see what’s out there.
Aside from that, I have two documentaries. One is called, “We Heard the Bells”. Watch that to get a sense of how earlier pandemics evolved and how long it took, and what people had to do to deal with it.
And at the same time I have this documentary, it is simply called “Pandemic”. On Netflix. It features scientists, who also looked at the Spanish flu. They really go into what creates pandemics, how we should deal with them, how we can prevent them in the future.
It’s a real must-watch. Because we are now in a pandemic, but zoonotic diseases are of all times. And we can just as well be in another pandemic in ten years. And we have to do everything to prevent that from happening.
MEHRAN: So I guess the message is, ‘do watch Netflix, but watch Pandemic on Netflix, and then get active’.
OK, I think we can close it there. Vicky, thank you for the chat. Really enjoyed speaking to you and it’s been very informative and insightful. All the best.
VICKY: Thank you.