On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19’s spread was now a pandemic, and on March 13, 2020, when here in Quebec a total lockdown went into effect, most people would have had many questions. Then at some point the very act of questioning, of finding certain alleged facts and explanations to be questionable, was deemed to be belligerent. Officials grew visibly impatient with some questions; particular questions were dismissed outright; we were not supposed to question the answers that we were given. “Facts” were facts, until the facts suddenly changed. Political leaders, public health officials, doctors, scientists, media personalities—all were certain about the facts, and viewed questions as a form of unacceptable hostility, and then they changed the facts.
A new documentary about the personal, political, and economic effects of the lockdowns encourages the right approach which is to ask many questions, and never stop asking. Questions asked include all of the following: How dangerous is this coronavirus to most people? What does the virus do to the body? Who is likely to get sick and who is likely to die? How many will end up dying, and how many will just get sick? Why do the healthy need to be locked down, effectively quarantined? When is herd immunity achieved? Were/are the current restrictive measures in proportion to the dangers of the virus? What impact do these lockdowns have on our society? Was public policy really about public health? Why is it the policy that the only hope is a vaccine? In making this the only officially-approved hope, what other powers are at work? What does our future look like? What really are the facts here?
COVID-19: The System is a new documentary directed by Belgin Inal that was released in The Netherlands on November 11, 2020. The duration of the film is 109 minutes. The main language of the film is Dutch (the Dutch version is free), but most online versions will have English subtitles. At the very least, we gain some insight into what happened in one country—The Netherlands—and we can compare it with our respective national situations. There is remarkable global homogeneity, and it is pretty depressing.
This documentary is so extensive, compacting numerous questions, loads of information, and several cross-cutting critical analyses, that it became impossible to produce a single report. Thus for the first time that documentaries have been reviewed on this site, this one will be published in two parts.
Meet Nico Sloot: A Citizens’ Advocate Who Interrogates Power
The published synopsis effectively encapsulates the film:
“The whole world is in Lock Down. There is panic in society. What is going on here? After the Prime Minister’s speech about the highly contagious ‘Corona’ virus, Nico Sloot, an international entrepreneur, joined forces with scientists, doctors, and experts to find answers to the questions surrounding the coronavirus. How dangerous is this virus? What does our future look like? Are the current measures in proportion to the virus? And what impact does this have on our society? During Nico’s quest, he makes shocking findings. Is this actually about our public health?”
The documentary itself establishes its lead questions at the outset. Nico Sloot, described as an international entrepreneur, acts as the main voice in the film and our lead detective. What struck me from the start was how he framed the central problem that provoked his investigative journey: when would herd immunity be achieved? On the question of risk: who is going to get sick and who is going to die?
Sloot formed an independent research team that grew to include up to 20 scientists in four countries, across a range of specialties. This was something of an ad hoc think tank. The team encompassed doctors, economists, accountants, data specialists, among other specialties, and each member of the team had his/her own specific research task. It is quite impressive to see such an independent citizens’ initiative form, and it is a welcome antidote to the authoritarian, top-down, ask no questions, just follow orders approach involved with state proclamations and directives by top public health officers. Such independent initiatives should serve as a refreshing reminder—because apparently one is needed—that it is not wrong to ask questions and challenge assertions.
What or who provoked Nico Sloot? In part, he admits, it was a speech given early in the crisis by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. This compelled Sloot to conduct what he estimates is about 1,000 hours of research, added to others who joined him, totalling at least 5,000 hours. I suspect he is providing a low estimate. On his motivation, Sloot explains: “In business you always work with risk…so the first thing I looked at was: What are the facts here? How many will die and how many will fall victim to COVID-19?”
We hear and view the same speech by Prime Minister Rutte to which Sloot refers at the opening, and it is the standard kind of dramatic announcement that we all heard in our respective locales (it is included in the trailer I created, in the absence of an English-language trailer).
Is Public Policy About Public Health?
From the start, Nico Sloot accuses The Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health (the RIVM) of telling “half-truths” and presenting the public with “half-science”. Nico Sloot adds:
“I’m a citizen and I want very much to trust the government. I want to believe that what I read in the media is correct and isn’t censored. But when they tell so many lies and half-truths, what am I supposed to think?”.
We sympathize immediately. It has been atrociously indefensible to witness the degree of iron-fisted totalitarian censorship, suppression, and even misinformation and propaganda that has been the primary stance of publicly-funded media, corporate media, and US “social media” during this time. People have been treated as infants and inferiors, who are to be prevented from seeing, hearing, or reading a wide variety of views because unlike us—their superiors and their betters—they could not handle such material. The other assumption has been that people are to be treated as a dangerous threat themselves, the public is a menace to itself. We must save the masses from themselves: this is classic elitist fear of the masses. It is the essence of all missionary programs, of liberal imperialism, of humanitarian abduction as I call it.
Sloot is baffled, like we are, by a policy that was pursued when there were vast numbers of non-COVID victims than there were COVID victims. And if that is the case—which it was/is—then Sloot is right to ask: was public policy really about public health?
Nico Sloot took note of the fact that when the Dutch government set up its Outbreak Management Team, it actually spoke little of public health as such, and instead emphasized virology—which made sense to him, except that public health is about much more than just a virus. Also, Nico noticed that the social and economic side of the crisis was not represented by relevant experts on the OMT. This problem of a one-dimensional approach has been highlighted here recently, and has been observed by others as well.
We have been asked to not only trust governments (that are secretive, dishonest, harsh, and sometimes corrupt), but also to trust the media (which have been homogeneous, one-sided, and served to under-educate and overly alarm us at every step), and then to trust a scandal-plagued pharmaceutical industry whose main goal is profit.
People who out of good sense lacked trust, needed to be hammered by the system: they were to be insulted as deranged “conspiracy theorists” who were “anti-science”; as irresponsible “populists”; as right-wing “extremists; or even, somehow, as “white supremacists”.
The documentary states its conclusion from early on: the measures that have been taken, and the consequences of those measures, are entirely out of proportion with the virus itself. If I was onto something in last year’s series, it was this sense of disproportionality caused by the virus. However, I did not yet understand exactly how the proportions would be messed up, and in which way: “A tiny invisible virus is leaving a massive visible global footprint. All of its proportions look out of order, and in turn the virus calls all of our proportions into question as it disorders them”. No, we disordered the proportions all by ourselves; the virus did nothing but act as a virus.
Nico Sloot was not, apparently, predisposed to viewing the crisis in terms of its disproportional measures and their consequences; after all, he approvingly lists Yuval Harari (let me say: I am not a fan) as central to his education, while Harari himself has been very much on board with the establishment during this crisis, and had praise for the measures taken by governments, except for “populist” ones.
Yet Sloot himself apparently disagrees: the “collateral damage” of the measures taken were worse than the virus. He mentions that, for The Netherlands alone, around 300,000 hospital procedures had to be postponed. In Canada it was reported that many crucial cancer treatments, colonoscopies, and important surgeries that had been scheduled, were all pushed back thus creating a massive backlog. Even more: Canadian media reported the common occurrence of people suffering from heart problems, or even actual heart attacks, and not going to the hospital (either out of fear of getting infected by the virus, or because they knew hospitals were already dedicated almost exclusively to COVID-19 patients).
Sloot defines his stance as follows:
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I’m not on the left or right politically. I have no interest in this, no financial interest, not at all. I was looking primarily at my children’s future. If you build up lots of debt you know someone will have to pay”.
People ready to scoff at this should first inform themselves about what debt crises do to healthcare systems, and the health of individuals in general, particularly those who always bear the worst brunt of such crises: the working class.
T-Cells and the Virus: What Did Cruise Ships and Italy Teach Us?
The documentary begins its journey by situating this as a human crisis, within a very long evolutionary natural history in which viruses have always existed and long preexisted the appearance of our first ancestors. Dr. Koos Biesmeijer, Professor of Natural Capital at Leiden University, explains in basic terms that viruses are a constant of human existence: they adapt and mutate in close relationship with us. The broader point made by Biesmeijer is that humans and viruses have always evolved in collaboration with each other. Our immune systems have developed as a result of that relationship. Yet our contemporary attitude is that viruses must be wiped out altogether, in order to preserve the primacy of an increasingly artificial human. Viruses, however, will not be easily wiped out, Biesmeijer adds, since it is very difficult to develop any kind of effective vaccine or treatment given that viruses constantly mutate in unexpected directions. Pinning all of our hopes on vaccines, which cannot predict let alone match the mutation rates and directions of virus mutations, can prove to be very disappointing. Witness the present: even as vaccines are being administered, the virus is spawning multiple new mutations, with some proving less vulnerable to the vaccines.
Nico Sloot is shown with his family, and that includes his brother and co-researcher, Willem Sloot, who is a doctor and toxicologist with work experience that involved SARS-CoV-1. Like families everywhere around the world, they received the first announcements of the pandemic with dazed bewilderment, wondering how bad this virus was, how serious was the situation, what would happen, what did it all mean.
Willem Sloot’s approach to studying the virus did not involve the Internet or the news media: he studied medical publications instead. Knowing that COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is a SARS virus, and a substantial amount of research was published about SARS-1 in 2003 and after, he had a base where he could start. Willem’s main interest had to do with immunity.
What struck Willem Sloot almost immediately was how public medical pronouncements, “really talked at first exclusively about immunoglobulin, immunity as it is measured in the blood,” following the lead of studies informing national policy. “That astonished me,” Willem exclaims, “because it’s just one element of immunity that you can measure. But there’s much more. The immune system is wide-ranging”. He also observed how in news reports “only immunoglobulin was mentioned, which is made by B-cells that are measured in the blood”. Willem then mentions T-cells, and more broadly, the fact that bodies also have “a first defence response that can make a big difference”. Willem reminds us: “you want to know how all the pieces fit into the picture,” in order to have an informed view.
The team looked at a range of early, prominent cases of infection—Italy, the cruise ships—and noted that there were a large number of infections, but with very few actually becoming seriously ill. Cruise ships in particular, with all their elderly vacationers, acted as Petri dishes, floating worst-case scenarios. That fact alone—that extremely few became ill—suggests that bodies must have some degree or form of natural defence against the virus.
In closely studying data taken in the case of the town of Vò Euganeo in the Veneto region of Italy, the team found that most persons’ bodies had a form of natural protection against the virus. The town became famous because it was the site of Italy’s very first known fatality from COVID-19 (Adriano Trevisan, a pensioner). A substantial number of those tested positive, circa 50%, did not even show symptoms. Willem Sloot found that the presence of T-cells played a key role. These T-cells developed from prior exposures to related coronaviruses (many of which are normally in circulation, including those that cause common colds). Thus most people that encounter COVID-19, did/do so with a certain degree of T-cell immunity already in place. Yet, we continued to hear about “herd immunity” as something to be achieved at some point in the future, with the goalposts constantly shifted.
Research that was published by the Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s top medical university, was also studied by Willem Sloot who speaks about it in the film—and that research demonstrated that natural immunity, based on T-cell responses, was higher than antibody tests have shown. In fact, twice as many people were found to have T-cell immunity compared with those with detectable antibodies. Thus researchers in Sweden found that, “public immunity to COVID-19 is probably significantly higher than antibody tests have suggested”. This independent team’s conclusion was, therefore, that there is a natural resistance to coronaviruses.
Such studies found that while B-cell immunoglobulin was found only to a limited degree, in about 5%-10% of those tested, T-cell responses were instead found in the range of 40%-60% of people. In other words, a focus on immunoglobulin in common antibody tests will paint a much more dramatic picture of viral danger to humans. When results are so skewed, setting a low bar for natural resistance, then the policy that resulted emphasized extreme measures. Worse yet was if policy came first, and the supporting science (appropriately skewed) came second.
For Nico, one of the big questions was, what does the virus do to the body? What actually happens to the body? In addressing such questions, the research team basically found that what was being implemented by the state was an overreaction.
Nico Sloot then turns back to the assertion made by Dutch Prime Minister Rutte (and we have heard this in North America too), that about “95% of people have no defence against the virus”. That figure rests on an argument that only about 5% of people have antibodies, B-cells. However, the large number of asymptomatic cases shows that a level of herd immunity had or has already been achieved—and backed up the Swedish T-cell research, this argument rests on proven scientific fact.
The argument that we do not yet have herd immunity can therefore only be a political argument. It is certainly not based on scientific fact, as much as it wants to cloak itself in “science”. The argument that we have/had not reached herd immunity, and that virtually an entire country needs to be vaccinated, is also not a policy based on scientific fact. It’s about something else altogether.
Nico Sloot details his discussions with Feike Sijbesma, the government’s special voluntary envoy for dealing with the coronavirus, who agreed in private with Sloot about our already existing T-cells, but that he could not bring this up with cabinet because he did not want to “get into the politics”. What Sloot learned is that the government by then had already signed a deal with AstraZeneca on vaccine production. Sijbesma’s own brother was the CEO of a German company that would be producing the vaccines. Once that became news, Feike Sijbesma’s role as special envoy was terminated.
Global Panic, Swedish Calm
Seemingly the entire world followed the same containment measures. Nico Sloot, as discussed in the previous documentary review, squarely blames the World Health Organization (WHO) for that: “There’s a lot of pharma money in the WHO, so they’re not impartial”.
He too turns to the case of the 2009 swine flu, and how the WHO declared it a life-threatening pandemic—except that it barely affected anyone. It was, however, a convenient trigger for pharmaceutical companies to produce and sell vaccines: “it was just pharma money pulling the strings”. Nico Sloot thus laments that we do not seem to have learned anything, and the situation is being repeated.
Interestingly, what is team found was a WHO position paper from 2019 that advocated against lockdowns and social distancing, which the WHO then dropped.
The second problem identified by the team, aside from the WHO effectively deciding policy for 193 countries, was the globalized panic and imitation of lockdown measures. We witnessed this for ourselves: the severe Wuhan lockdown was largely imitated by Italy, then it came to New York, then it came to Quebec, and so on.
Sloot’s research team advocated to politicians that The Netherlands should follow the Swedish model: look after the most vulnerable, and recognize the fact that most people already had sufficient immunity. The team was, of course, ignored by their political “representatives”. The news media also would not touch their story.
What everyone saw (or should have seen) during and just after the first wave, is who were the most vulnerable groups, and then contrast that knowledge with the nature of the measures taken thereafter. As Sloot puts it in the case of The Netherlands:
“Elderly people with an illness were the ones who fell ill and were hospitalized. And a very big group of healthy people, the economic workforce…really weren’t very much affected. Some were, but far fewer than victims of road accidents. The strange thing is that [Prime Minister] Rutte told us we all had to go into lockdown”.
How does that make sense? Why do the healthy need to be locked down, effectively to be quarantined? A nation could keep almost everything going as normal, with a few protective measures in place. Meanwhile, in The Netherlands, the state’s management team (the OMT), and the national public health institute (the RIVM), were consulting virologists mainly. Social and economic aspects of public health were ignored, there as almost everywhere else.
In Canada what has been almost maddeningly unexplained was the fact that the deadliest wave, and the only real wave in terms of deaths, was the first one. The two subsequent so-called waves were primarily based on numbers of people testing positive (using highly flawed tests)—regardless of the outcomes of testing positive (which in the vast majority of cases meant nothing at all). Yet the measures became stricter and stricter. We had such drastic measures in Quebec for the alleged “third wave” (commonly described by the media as a “horrific” wave), that we did not even have for the first wave: curfews and extreme restrictions on even private family gatherings. Masks were not even worn during the first wave—but even before the “second wave” they had become recommended, then mandatory, and then police went on a frenzy of fining. Yet, during this so-called “third wave,” we typically saw in Quebec on average maybe one death per day—while in the first wave, that number was between 150 and 170 deaths per day. Indeed, there was no second or third wave in terms of deaths: it has all been one big decline since April of 2020. Canadian hospitals developed an effective cocktail of drugs that drastically shortened hospital stays and greatly reduced mortality. Nevertheless, news talkshow hosts in our homogeneous mass media cried out, and this is verbatim in the case of CTV’s Evan Solomon: “We’re dying here!”. His even shriller colleagues on CJAD Radio simply demanded a blanket shutting down of all travel anywhere in Canada, as if it was a rational and logical response, while tensely and aggressively putting down any callers who disagreed.
Censoring the Public, Censoring Scientists
Sloot’s research partners make similar observations about the media. It seems that the media, everywhere, have been caught in yet another “epic failure”: anti-democratic and anti-scientific, they instead operated as organs of fear-mongering propaganda, censorship, and surveillance. At their basest, they became mere sales representatives for transnational pharmaceutical giants. The public, in the view of the media, was something to be more shamed than respected. If this is not “the enemy of the people,” then one dreads to think what would count as such. One of Sloot’s partners rightly observes: humanity has been abused during this year of lockdowns.
Evelien Peeters, an internist and endocrinologist, makes an observation that like others I continually share: “It seems to me that we’re in one big behavioural experiment. And that we’re damaging people”. She prefaces this by saying, “I feel I’ve reached my moral limits in the way we’re treating public health and humanity at the moment”.
Her contribution to the documentary offers much needed commentary about freedom of speech. She notes that questions, doubts, and debates are to be seen as normal in a proper scientific community—but once one works for a hospital, speaking to the media can often highlight the name of the hospital. She has to always proclaim that she speaks for herself as an individual, and not the hospital, to be able to exercise her right to free speech.
Peeters does not minimize the virus. She acknowledges that it is nastier than most that we have experienced in recent years/decades: “It’s a new virus, much more infectious and many people are getting sick. It can be a very nasty illness and we have to provide much more care”.
However, even here the problem is not primarily one of virology, but of government policy that has underfunded healthcare thus reducing its capacity to meet this challenge—with predictable negative results which then feed back into the perception that the virus is some mighty, unstoppable ogre. The situation she described in The Netherlands, perfectly mirrors that of Quebec, with the common thread being the globalization of neoliberal programs: “The problem is bedside care. Massive cuts have been made there. And in nursing care. There’s debate about salaries, overtime and breaks”. The emergence of a parallel, private healthcare system in Quebec has not helped matters either: it has drawn away many overworked and underpaid nurses and doctors—thus again magnifying the perceived effects of the virus.
The Business Model of Governments: Who Wins?
The strict lockdown measures—and in Quebec this has always been openly admitted—was to prevent (underfunded and neglected) hospitals from being overwhelmed. That’s all. That was always the first and the last point. The lockdowns have not been because the virus is massively deadly (which, demonstrably, it is not), but because capacity to meet the virus has been diminished, by design. This is why, as I stressed, we should not be talking about “the pandemic,” but about the lockdown. Peeters argues that doctors and nurses should never be used to justify lockdown measures, because it turns them into mere products that are part of a business model.
The system is about preserving itself, with “saving lives” used as a pretext. Whether it is about preserving neoliberal healthcare, with the reduction of resources for the public, paid by the public; or, whether it is about expanding the profit margins of pharmaceutical companies—either way, the system wins. Nico Sloot makes these very points and, as a businessman, I credit him with understanding how these things work.
Indeed, what this documentary repeatedly discusses is how the biggest winners in this crisis—those that reaped the greatest monetary rewards—have been biotech and data technology companies. These are the ones that had an active interest in governments expanding the power to tighten the strings on people. Small and medium-sized businesses were shut down. To take up the artificially-created slack, online retailers and big transnational box stores continued to function.
Answering the question of “Who wins?” (which was not asked directly in this film, oddly enough), can also help to explain the kinds of actors that played a prominent role and were able to exercise tremendous influence throughout the pandemic lockdowns.
We continue with related themes in Part 2.