'False hope': Experts denounce calls to prioritise vaccines for under 25s

'False hope': Experts denounce calls to prioritise vaccines for under 25s
Credit: Belga

An open letter urging Belgium to prioritise 16 - 25-year-olds for coronavirus vaccinations has prompted polarising reactions across the county as the merits of the proposal come up for public debate.

The letter - written by a group of about 40 adults from various sectors in Flanders - has been making headlines across the country with the call to focus on Belgium's youth. “We want to give up our place to the young people,” Heidi De Pauw, CEO of Child Focus, and Sara Vercauteren, managing director of PR agency Bepublic, wrote.

In the less than 24h since the letter was published, politicians, psychologists and Belgium's youth have made their opinions clear.

Here's a recap:

Experts and Vaccination Taskforce: "Don't give false hope"

While the task force understands the call, it cannot simply change the vaccination order that has been agreed on, according to former general practice professor and member of the task force Jan De Maeseneer.

"Changing the schedule to give priority to young people inevitably has consequences for other groups," he told VRT NWS. "However, it is very nice that an older generation shows solidarity with the younger ones.'

"In the task force, we will certainly look at that signal. Just as we will also take into account signals from other groups in society, such as high-risk patients," said De Maeseneer.

According to virologist Marc Van Ranst, it is up to politicians to make that decision, but he warned that the authorities should not give young people false hope.

"If you tell young people that it will be their turn first, they might think that they can do anything. However, the face mask obligation and the rules about maintaining a social distance will still apply, of course."

"We can only lift them once everyone has been vaccinated and group immunity has been achieved," he said. "So young people will still be restricted in their freedom, even if they are among the first to be vaccinated."

On Twitter, he stated that from the moment that people over 65, (informal) healthcare workers, and people with underlying diseases are vaccinated, and there are very little coronavirus mortality and hospitalisations left, "we must in any case quickly phase out the strict measures."

Biostatistician Geert Molenberghs warned that it is currently not yet clear if the vaccines also prevent people from transmitting the coronavirus.

"It could well be that someone who has been vaccinated still infects people, without them noticing anything about the virus," he told VTM News. "Before we adjust the vaccination strategy, it is important that we have a clear view of that."

Psychologists: "There's no health without mental health"

While the open letter is a nice signal of intergenerational solidarity, it is important not to lose sight of reality, according to motivational psychologist Maarten Vansteenkiste.

"This is a collective story that should lead us to a collective freedom and real freedom only comes with collective freedom," he told local media.

"When you start advocating for a particular group, you draw the card of individual freedom. Then it possibly becomes a bidding war between different groups," Vansteenkiste said. "What we want to do is create space for young people in the relaxations, as we did last week with the after-school activities for children over 12."

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However, according to clinical psychologist and behavioural youth therapist at UZ Gent, Sarah Bal, it could be good to let young people have an earlier turn in the vaccination strategy, after the high-risk patients have had their turn.

"The mental health of young people is very poor. And I always say that there's no health without mental health," she told Het Laatste Nieuws, adding that the voice of young people needs to be listened to.

Rules for young people should be relaxed as soon as possible, according to Bal. "Adults can work, they can take their car to go somewhere, they already have a circle of friends, they can travel. Young people don't have any of that and have nowhere to fall back on. That is literally killing them."

Ministers: "The last to be vaccinated are not the last to regain their freedom"

The issue of flexibility for young people should not be linked to the issue of their vaccination, according to Youth Minister Benjamin Dalle.

“We are aware that this is a very difficult period, also for young people over 18 years of age,” he said. “I plead that, as soon as flexibility is possible, young people should be thought of in the first instance. And that this is not made dependent on whether or not these young people are vaccinated at that moment.”

Dalle said he hoped the upcoming carnival holidays (15 to 21 February) would be the last with severe rules.

Flemish Welfare Minister Wouter Beke said he understands the question, but is not in favour, he told VTM NEWS.

"It is not because you are the first to be vaccinated that you are also the first to regain your freedom," he said. "We set up the vaccination strategy with the idea of vaccinating the most vulnerable first, because they are the ones who end up in hospitals the fastest and therefore put the greatest pressure on our healthcare system."

By vaccinating them first, the pressure on the healthcare system can be eased, which is also one of the conditions for relaxing the coronavirus measures, Beke stressed.

"I think people are confusing two things: just because you are the last to be vaccinated does not mean you are the last to regain your freedom," Beke said. "And vice versa: someone who is vaccinated will not regain all their freedom right away."

Young people: "Do not want to pass by the vulnerable"

The Flemish Students Association (VVS) said that it is important for young people to gain perspective, but also believes that experts are best placed to determine how this should be done.

Additionally, not all students are immediately eager to be vaccinated, the association stressed, adding that they also realise that being vaccinated will not automatically lead to freedom.

The Flemish Youth Council is very pleased that there is now so much attention for young people, but does not want to take a position on the vaccination strategy.

"We do not want to pass by the vulnerable in our society," said Amir Bachrouri of the Council in the VRT programme De Afspraak.

However, if there is again room for relaxation, they do hope that children and young people between the ages of 6 and 30 will be at the forefront.

"The most important thing is: how can certain activities for young people continue, how can they see each other?"

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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