No life in freedom and dignity without risks

April 2021

Interview with Michaela Glöckler, paediatrician and former head of the Medical Section at the Goetheanum.

Erziehungskunst | A large part of humanity lives in fear of pandemics. Here it is often overlooked that the confrontation with viruses has always existed in the evolution of the human organism and its immune system. What understanding of disease underlies this fear?

Michaela Glöckler | I would differentiate here – because even a purely scientifically-based understanding of disease does not necessarily give rise to a fear pandemics in my view. This fear seems to me to be due more to one-sided media reporting or one-sided media perception, as well as the way politicians deal with the pandemic which has so far only been oriented towards numbers and safety thinking.

As far as the understanding of the disease is concerned, there is no doubt among scientists – including those at the Robert Koch Institute – that a good 80 percent of those who have tested positive for coronavirus are asymptomatic, i.e. healthy. That is why it is misleading to speak here of people who are ill or infected.

Because of the very small residual risk that one of those who tested positive might develop symptoms after all – and because there is the desire to prevent further infections at all costs – tracing is triggered and all those who tested positive and their contacts are sent into quarantine. However, only about 20 percent of those who test positive develop symptoms, and most of them only mild or moderate flu-like symptoms.

Depending on the statistics, it is about 0.2 percent of these almost 20 percent who become seriously ill, who may have to be ventilated and who may also die from and with coronavirus. However, this group is statistically very significantly dominated by people with pre-existing conditions or because they are in their last decades of life.

This does not mean that I underestimate the danger and particular aggressiveness of this viral pneumonia with its consequences for the whole organism. I only want to contribute to a realistic assessment of the risk of becoming seriously ill. This also includes the fact that by no means everyone with previous illnesses shows a severe course of coronavirus when infected.

So where does the fear come from? Either from the fact that people have not yet made this simple calculation for themselves, or from the fact that people have not yet dealt consciously enough with the question of why life itself is such that it always carries the risk of getting an illness or suffering an accident. The only certain thing is that each of us will die one day. There is no life without risk. However, how we deal with our own risk of illness and death is significantly influenced by what we call our worldview or spiritual orientation. For me, the pandemic of fear is also connected with the prevailing materialism.

EK | Why does the detection of viruses in the human body not mean that a person has the disease?

MG | This is because the PCR test can only detect corona virus components and – as is also generally known – is not validated to detect a COVID-19 infection with certainty. Moreover, it is not the virus but the susceptibility or immunocompetence of the organism that decides on an infection. It is noticeable that the number of infections is high where there is high air pollution, poor and cramped living conditions, or where there are pre-existing diseases, mental stress, a more advanced age and other factors that can weaken the immune system. This is why homes for the elderly are particularly affected, even if the best protective equipment is used.

EK | The fatality risk for COVID-19 is not considered to be of concern – clinically speaking. Are the Corona measures then still useful?

MG | In the first wave of the pandemic in spring, it was understandable that drastic measures were taken due to the great uncertainty about how the dynamics of the infection would develop. What was incomprehensible to me from the beginning, however, was that the same insistence with which the infection figures, the test results, the situation in the intensive care units, the serious individual cases were communicated and presented in the media was not also used to point out to the population that, in addition to exposure prophylaxis (distancing rules, hygiene measures, mouth/nose covering, etc.), strengthening one’s own self-healing powers, the so-called salutogenic resources, also protects against an illness.

How do you strengthen the immune system? This is also something that orthodox medicine and psychoneuroimmunology knows about today: healthy lifestyle, sufficient physical exercise, positive feelings, healthy self-confidence and a satisfying world view and perspective on life. You can work on all of these and it strengthens your resilience, your inner resistance. If all this is missing, then the immune system is additionally or especially weakened. That is why fear is contagious.

EK | Is the wearing of masks in schools, even in class, to ward off infection indicated from a medical point of view in view of this development?

MG | From a medical point of view, I personally think that wearing masks only makes sense where a child needs special protection because of an immune deficiency; but then this child should also wear a very good medically tested protective mask – just like a teacher needing protection – as is also customary in hospitals when dealing with immunocompromised patients. It also makes sense for institutions where people needing protection live, and in individual cases for adults who want to protect themselves and others.

However, to impose this on the majority of healthy children in everyday school life and thus to paralyse spontaneous expressions of life, learning processes, independent activity, joy in games and sports, in music and art, or to make them completely impossible – not to mention digital substitute solutions, which must be considered in turn with regard to their educational value – is not, in my opinion, proportionate.

On the one hand, because there are no meaningful studies that prove the point of wearing masks in school. For this, one would have to be able to compare schools with and without compulsory mask wearing and see how the tested clusters relate to each other.

On the other hand, because the damage we already know about, which extends to real traumatisation, far exceeds the benefit in question. In my view, the requirement of proportionality of means alone speaks against the wearing of masks in schools. However, since the uncertainty is so great and the authorities’ requirements so strict, I recommend good communication with parents and teachers individually in each class about how to handle the mask requirement and the risk. Because if a certain group of children is together in one room every day, even with the strictest mask requirement, distancing rules and frequent ventilation, it cannot be avoided that the same air that everyone breathes in and out is contaminated with possible pathogens. Therefore such a cluster is de facto a virus-risk community in which a residual risk of infection can never be ruled out.

In addition, children in any case build up their immune system in the first ten to twelve years of life and therefore become acutely ill much more often than adults. It is also interesting that COVID-19 does not cause pneumonia in them, but rather harmless cold symptoms, including stomach aches and headaches.

EK | A vaccine against COVID-19 is expected soon which will contain genetically modified substances for the first time. What should we think about this?

MG | In principle, I think it is important and right to work on vaccines that can protect people from serious diseases. Normally, however, a vaccine needs 10-15 years to pass through all the safety hurdles that are necessary to be able to approve the vaccine with a clear conscience. I find the current rush to approve vaccines – which, moreover, do not work with an inactivated pathogen as in the past, but with parts of its genetic material – problematic.

On the one hand, because one cannot exclude side effects with great certainty. On the other hand, because its presence means that a vaccination certificate can be required for certain occupational groups or travellers, thus making vaccination indirectly enforced for social compliance.

EK | Your medical colleague Harald Mathes from the Havelhöhe Community Hospital in Berlin considers the maintenance of the current coronavirus measures to be inappropriate and not proportionate. How do you assess the situation?

MG | Just like him! It is also interesting that a reader’s letter from the anthroposophical doctor Hans-Jürgen Scheurle has been clicked on and read 350,000 times. He concludes by saying: “We doctors have a duty to oppose nonsensical, harmful government measures and to counter the shutdown based on PCR tests, the cultural isolation and economic decline. Are politicians committing social suicide here ‘to protect the people’ – because they are so afraid of death? Freedom and social health stand in opposition here to excessive protection by the state, the consequences of which are barely foreseeable” (Deutsches Ärzteblatt 2020; 117(48): A-2356 / B-1984).

It takes courage to speak out publicly in this sense today, because many are already afraid of being pushed into the right-wing corner or assigned to the contrarians.

EK | Suppose there is a second lockdown of schools: can the “Waldorf school as we know it” then still be maintained?

MG | I can only say that if the Waldorf schools do not remember their roots and clearly commit themselves to an education towards freedom and thus to a certain risk in life, it will be difficult to maintain their educational mission. When the well-known pioneer of computer technology in the USA, Joseph Weizenbaum, was asked in an interview in 1984 whether the computer would bring the surveillance state, he said on the one hand that this was self-evident because this was what had been worked towards from the beginning. But if it came – the surveillance state – then it would not be the computer’s fault but the people’s fault who did not defend their freedom.

If we do not defend Waldorf education, this fundamental alternative to the currently still prevailing education system – an alternative that relies on independent initiative and the development of creativity and not on conformity – then we will lose it.

EK | School closures and distance learning have increased digital teaching and learning methods. What should we think about this development?

MG | In Der Spiegel of 2 December 2020, the well-known British economist and critic of capitalism Noreena Hertz, when asked what governments could do against the epidemic of loneliness among people, says: “They should regulate social media more, especially when it comes to children. Social media are the tobacco industry of the twenty-first century. I would go even further: ban the networks that get children under 16 addicted.”  

At Waldorf schools, the rule is: first learn to do yourself everything the computer can do – including how it works – before using it where it can really enhance the teaching process. The human body and soul are not computers. They need real-world exposure and stimulation for their healthy development. This is why the European Alliance of Initiatives for Applied Anthroposophy (ELIANT), together with the Alliance for Humane Education, has launched a petition to EU education officials to preserve the option of screen-free kindergartens and primary schools. We are grateful for any support.

EK | Parents and teachers at Waldorf schools sometimes react very differently to the implementation of state orders and requirements. What would be necessary to restore social peace?

MG | I have had the opportunity to give talks on the coronavirus pandemic to various Waldorf faculties. My concern here was to talk about the pandemic and its effects in such a way that both sides – the so-called “covidiots” and the “panicists” – understand each other and no group claims dominance over the other. Of course, clear instructions from the state are binding. But there are great differences in the way they are implemented. These range from anticipatory obedience to well-considered individual agreements and the creation of free spaces. Polarisation, fear, voicelessness and taboo can only be healed through factual information and the will to mutual understand one another.

EK |  On 11 November 2020, the “third law for the protection of the population in the event of an epidemic situation of national magnitude” was adopted, which makes it possible to restrict or even abolish significant fundamental rights. How do you assess this development?

MG | I can only refer to Joseph Weizenbaum again: if we do not defend our freedom, we will lose it. There are two arguments that every government can use to convince the population entrusted to it of any measures: one is the fear of terrorism and violence and the other is the fear of deadly epidemics – in both cases, the existential fear of life and limb is used. Life and limb are a person’s most precious possession, which is why safety takes precedence over freedom here. Enough people with common sense are therefore needed who clearly recognise the actual risks, examine the proportionality of the measures and then make a strong case that a life in freedom and dignity cannot be had without risks.

I hope and demand that the governments in various countries set up large expert consultations for such far-reaching measures which, independently of economic interests, bring the human dimension in particular into the discussion in order to reach the decisions that are beneficial for humanity. Education must not be understood by society as a whole as a process of adapting to the demands of the economy and society but as a path of development towards the responsible and free personality.


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