The following is a talk given by Therapists for Medical Freedom Co-Founder Jen Ayling at the public meeting held by the Coalition Against Health Passes, on the 18th of September 2021 at Manchester Friends Meeting House.
A video of Jen’s talk can be seen here:
My name is Jen Ayling. I’m a UKCP registered psychotherapeutic counsellor, and a co-founder of Therapists for Medical Freedom.
We are a collective of psychological therapists who have deep concerns about the current response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact it’s having on human health, civil liberties, and social connection. We’ve written an open letter against vaccine passports which is open to the public to sign, please do check it out if you’ve not already seen it. But today I’m not representing a collective position or speaking for anyone else but myself.
So, what is wrong with Vaccine passports, and how did I end up stood here talking to you about them? And at what point did I as a therapist start to question the government’s narrative, and the direction of our national pandemic response?
Well, let’s go back to the beginning. In the initial stages of the pandemic, like a lot of people, I was really bought into the idea of sacrificing three weeks of my personal freedom to help flatten the curve, to protect the most vulnerable. It’s a sensible measure, I thought, let’s all be in it together. That seems so long ago now, doesn’t it?
But I suppose my work as a therapist meant that quite early in the process, maybe just a few weeks into it, I started to feel concerned about the statistics and stories that we were not being told. I saw on the news each night this endless data stream of case numbers, ICU beds, transmission rates and deaths. But what I didn’t see being discussed, to nearly the same extent, was what I was seeing on the ground as a therapist. What I was witnessing each day was the hugely negative impacts of these public health measures, that were supposedly put in place to protect us. The lockdown restrictions, the masks, the social distancing. I saw the profound loneliness and isolation they were causing. As the months rolled on, I saw that on so many levels, these things were having a catastrophic impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, especially amongst the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
Fear Beyond Reasonable Proportion
I’ve watched with horror as the government and the media have continued to whip up this fear of this virus beyond all reasonable proportion. It’s true that it’s a very nasty respiratory illness, and each life lost to COVID is a tragedy, I am not trying to downplay or deny any of that. But for the sake of proportionality, it’s worth noting that globally, Covid-19 has an infection fatality rate of 0.15% and in the UK most of us in this room would have a roughly 99.5%-99.8% chance of surviving it, even without any vaccinations. Like many other respiratory illnesses, the vast bulk of fatalities are in the elderly, and clinically vulnerable.
Yet sometimes it seems as if this nasty respiratory virus has been transformed almost into a plague in our public imagination. COVID-19 has somehow become so high up in our global health priorities it now eclipses anything else, even infectious or preventable illnesses with a far higher mortality rate. The measures we’ve brought in, have often been at the expense of many other vital services that are essential for public health. Over the last 18 months the governments pandemic response has crippled our economy in a way that will likely take decades to recover from, and whilst social distancing will have protected some people, these drastic public health interventions have also directly caused the loss of many lives.
A Mental Health Emergancy
As just one example, we now have a mental health crisis of epic proportions in this country. Anyone working in my profession will tell you that mental health services are currently on their knees.
Crisis care in hospital goes beyond ICU beds and ventilators. Time and time again over the pandemic I’ve tried in vain to get clients who are suicidal or acutely unwell into mental health crisis services. But those services became completely overwhelmed and almost non-functional about 12 months ago, under the weight of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions. Even getting a GP appointment for mental health issues is increasingly difficult. And because of this, people are now dying in record numbers, of suicide, of drug overdoses and alcohol addiction, of treatable mental health conditions that were recognised far too late, or there wasn’t the right care available. But I’m not seeing billions being pumped into mental health crisis care. I’m not hearing about that every night on the news.
The Cost of Hyperfixation
I believe that this hyperfixation with protecting everyone from one single virus at all costs, is in itself becoming a disease process. It’s like we are all stood in the corner of a forest, worrying about the health of one single diseased tree. We’re so distressed by it that we’re throwing everything at it to save its life, throwing all of our resources, throwing millions, billions, trillions of pounds to protect it, when all around us the entire forest is on fire, and many of us haven’t even noticed, so fixated are we on saving this single tree.
So, when I think about what’s wrong with vaccine passports, I can’t separate it from this wider context of our national pandemic response. What I fear is that these vaccine passports are a kind of crystallisation of this very fearful and completely disproportionate set of public health priorities. We’re adding fuel to a system already obsessed with case numbers and transmission rates and vaccination rates and deaths from covid, and this will amp up our fixation on this virus. Vaccine Passports will provide a technological infrastructure to embed these strange and skewed priorities into the structural fabric of our society, with increasing penalties and restrictions for those who disobey the health mandates of the government.
The Danger of Vaccine Passports – Polarisation and Social Division
I fear that vaccine passports will be a hugely divisive force in our world. They have the potential to split our entire society in two. They will create a two-tier society, dividing us into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. And then, slowly over time, we will be turned against each other.
You can already see this happening.
In recent months in the media, we have seen an increasing rise of judgment and blame towards unvaccinated people, for allegedly prolonging the pandemic, although there is no evidence of this. We now see newspaper headlines decrying the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” or that “Jabbed Brits celebrate after unvaccinated get sick pay cuts.” This is a profoundly dangerous turn of events. As autumn turns to winter and the rates of infection and transmission begin to rise, this narrative is likely going to be ramped up further and further. The great turn against the unvaccinated is only just beginning.
This isn’t just an issue about social justice, or discrimination.
If this starts to happen to us, it will have a profound impact on our collective mental health.
These social divisions are going to make us all suffer, not just the people who don’t get vaccinated, all of us will suffer if we split and turn against each other in the name of eradicating a virus.
Because this kind of polarisation, this two-tier society, isn’t just an abstract concept.
These divisions, this social split between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated will play out in the arena of real human relationships, and this will be profoundly damaging to us all.
Already we are seeing families splitting over their different takes on these issues. Spouses are divorcing, children and parents no longer talking, loyal staff members are suddenly being shamed, then threatened, then fired. Lifelong friends are blocking each other on Facebook, people insulting each other, doubting each other, calling each other crazy, selfish, brainwashed, sheeple – losing all sense of each other’s good intentions and our love for one another.
And as these polarisations intensify, all these ruptured relationships will have a profound mental health impact on society as a whole. Because, as a relational therapist, I believe that good mental health is rooted in strong, healthy, contactful human relationships. It isn’t just about chemicals in the brain. And if you create a situation where across the country, we are being systemically turned against each other, and thousands, millions of relationships are needlessly rupturing over this one issue – then we are all going to be impacted. Relationship breakdowns are a primary cause of stress, depression, anxiety, attachment difficulties, and many other social harms. If our society becomes profoundly divided and polarised to the extent that I fear it might, we are all going to suffer.
So, before I end, I just want to talk a bit about the solutions.
If Vaccine Passports do come in this winter, as most of us sat here probably quietly think they will, then what can we do to help minimise the harm they might cause to society, and what can we do to protect our own mental health?
If or when vaccine passports are introduced, I would say firstly, if you possibly can, then simply don’t use them. Don’t download the app. Don’t start showing your ‘papers’ everywhere. Don’t buy into the system in the first place. Boycott vaccine passports where possible, boycott the businesses that implement them, and instead support businesses and services that are supporting the boycott. Because if enough of us do this, it will make a difference.
But if for some reason you do need to use a vaccine passport, then I believe the second most important thing we can do is not to buy into the narratives that come along with them.
Defending Individual Rights and Freedoms is not Selfish!
The biggest mistake we can make in this situation is to start to internalise that standing up for our individual rights and freedoms is selfish, that it’s the polar opposite of caring for each other, that fighting to protect our individual rights is the antithesis of being community minded. I would say that is a false and a very dangerous dichotomy.
Individual freedoms are precious and worth protecting because they benefit society as a whole. Our right to our individual subjective opinions, to free speech, bodily autonomy, informed consent, freedom of movement, the right to a private life, these things are precious human rights, and with the introduction of vaccine passports, they are all now under serious threat. Wanting to protect these rights does not need to be at odds with a sense of collectivism or social responsibility.
When our individual rights and freedoms are protected as part of a free society then they generally benefit the health and wellbeing of everyone. To lose them will cause us far greater harm than COVID-19 could ever do. Historically, societies which have removed individual rights and freedoms in the name of a greater good, even in the name of health, usually end up being profoundly sick societies, this is the hallmark of most totalitarian regimes. It is not selfish to or uncaring to want to protect your own individual rights. Don’t buy into that polarisation, it’s an utter nonsense.
On a relational level, it’s important not to let the vaccine passports divide us. To not allow ourselves to become two warring groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Whatever your individual medical choices happen to be, don’t let this poisonous narrative split you from with your friends and your family or anyone who matters to you. However much the media, the politicians are trying to turn us against each other, let’s not let ourselves be split from each other, or turn against each other, because that way madness lies.
Protect the things that Support Joy and Connection
And finally, as a humanistic therapist I hold that to truly support mental health and human flourishing, then we must have free and unrestricted access to the parts of life that have always been central to human joy and flourishing throughout the course of our collective history.
Dancing together, smiling at strangers in the street, travelling to new places, eating a meal together with friends, being present at births of new family members, nursing our loved ones through illness and death, grieving together, watching theatre, listening to orchestras, singing, jumping up and down in a mosh pit, arguing in the street when we’ve got too drunk, having a really good snog with a total stranger – all of these things matter.
Acts of joyful, creative, social connectedness – the little rituals and big milestones of human life – these are not optional extras that we can just suddenly live without for months on end, nor we should we grant our government the power to them take from us in the name of keeping everyone safe.
I believe that now is a time for a collective, creative, civil disobedience, to push back against these draconian and ineffective public health interventions, in whichever ways best fit our own unique situation.
If there is an opportunity in this situation, it is to not ‘build back better’, to embrace a paranoid and atomised ‘new normal’. Instead, I believe the current situation offers us an opportunity to gain a new appreciation for the joys and sorrows, the agonies and ecstasies, the possibilities and limitations of being fully human.
Like it or not, this situation gives us a chance to reaffirm our commitment to the human rights and freedoms that really matter to us, and a chance to fight to defend them. And finally, and I think most importantly, this situation will give us a chance to break out of our echo chambers and to make new friendships and learn new skills. It’s a chance to stand united with our friends and loved ones whatever our differences might be, in the face of this unfolding tyranny – and the many ugly attempts to divide us.