Once bitten, twice shy? Not so when it comes to Belgium’s struggle with the pandemic.
After the country was hard hit during the pandemic’s first wave, it once again ranks among the most affected countries on the Continent.
The country is now reporting an eye-popping 930 infections per 100,000 people over the last 14 days, according to its public health body Sciensano. That’s the second worst in Europe based on data collected by European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, after the Czech Republic, which went into temporary lockdown on Thursday. Hospitalizations are rising so quickly that the country’s newly appointed health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, has warned it’s facing a “tsunami.”
Against this backdrop, regional and national officials are meeting again late Thursday night to discuss restrictions, against rumors that Belgium is heading into another lockdown.
Belgium could have known this was coming.
“We suspected back in April that a second wave was coming in the fall,” said Steven Van Gucht, a virologist who advises the government and is the main spokesperson for its COVID-19 crisis center. “We also knew that the circumstances [of the fall] — bad weather, the reopening of schools, people coming back from holidays — would benefit the spread of the virus.”
To be sure, Belgium isn’t alone in experiencing a resurgence. As Van Gucht sees it, the country might simply be a harbinger of where the rest of Europe is heading.
But given the rapid rise of infections, the country is now asking itself how it once again ended up as a hot spot in Europe — especially since many scientists were already shaken in the summer by the prospect of a second wave.
As before, experts and politicians once again point out how vulnerable the country is to the virus. Belgium is densely populated and positioned at the heart of Europe, marked by heavy cross-border travel.
“Throughout the summer, our coronavirus restrictions were stricter than those in many other European countries,” Van Gucht pointed out. “Even if we would have imposed stricter measures to become a green island in the heart of Europe, that situation would not have been sustainable.”
“Our open borders are crucial for our economy, and the virus would have come back in via neighboring countries anyway,” he added.
Relax at your peril
Van Gucht’s comments aside, many experts continue to be perplexed about why the government loosened rules at the end of September — a decision that, in hindsight, looks incomprehensible. Guidance on social contacts was eased, as was the time recommended for self-isolation.
At the time, politicians cited the lack of popular support for the measures. The country’s virologists and experts also publicly disagreed on many core issues, leaving it up to politicians to call the shots. Finally, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès was in the waning days of her placeholder minority government and had barely any political capital left.
The relaxation was immediately contested by experts, who warned it would only cause a wave of new infections.
“It’s true that it might have sent out the wrong signal,” Van Gucht acknowledged. “The idea was to find a balance and try to live with the virus. With the fall and the winter approaching, that was a risky bet.”
However, Van Gucht stressed that the country still had more restrictions in place at the time than most of Europe, and described the general feeling as one of “fatigue.”
“The solidarity from the first wave had disappeared, and opposition against the measures was rising,” he said. “Support among the population is crucial. If you close the bars but people shift to organizing home parties, then you’re no better off.”
But some say the government might have misinterpreted the sense of support among the population.
“When Wilmès announced the loosening of the restrictions, the motivation among the population to adhere to the rules dropped significantly,” said Maarten Vansteenkiste, a psychologist at the University of Ghent who advises the government on its coronavirus policies. “It was the wrong message toward the population.”
That motivational drop ended only when the newly appointed Belgian government announced a new set of restrictions on October 6, after which it went back up, Vansteenkiste said.
The new government also named a coronavirus commissioner, Pedro Facon, to coordinate the approach of the different regional governments. In an interview earlier this week with Belgian media, he said that “you have no choice [but] to admit that the situation is a bit derailed.”
“That is in part a policy failure,” he said. “So it’s good that the new government has taken serious new measures.”
But that’s all easier said than done, said one government official who was closely involved in the efforts of Wilmès’ government.
“Even though we knew we wouldn’t be in power for much longer, we were well aware that the virus wasn’t going to wait for an oath-taking,” the official said. “But you have to keep in mind that there was a real push by society for a return to normal. Now, people are learning this won’t happen anytime soon.”
Pick a color
Apart from the new restrictions, such as the closing of bars and restaurants, the new government also hopes to turn the tide by announcing on Friday a “coronavirus barometer” that takes into account the number of hospitalizations and infections.
This tool has been a long time coming. One reason for the delay is that the city of Brussels worried it would lead to to stricter restrictions for the capital, according to the official who served in the Wilmès government.
Van Gucht also believes it should have been launched sooner, for the sake of providing “perspective.”
“If we’re under a certain threshold, more things will become possible,” he said. “They can follow along instead of just waiting for new announcements.”
According to data journalists at the Belgian newspaper De Tijd, the barometer would have led to earlier interventions, such as stricter measures for Brussels throughout the summer, while national restrictions would have been tightened in September and October.
Facon also blames the current derailment in part on the city of Brussels. Even as late as early October, Brussels’ health minister, Alain Maron, tried to blame the rise in reported infections on increased testing capacity. That assessment ran against the much bleaker outlook of people like Marc Noppen, the chief of the hospital of the Free University of Brussels, who for weeks had been calling for stricter measures so that hospital capacity could be saved — including for people with non-COVID-19 conditions.
On Wednesday, Noppen said that the expansion of his hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) feels like “March 2020 revisited” and expressed anger “that this predicted scenario could not have been avoided.”
Almost 3,000 people are now in Belgian hospitals, including 500 in ICUs. Still, hospitals see the situation as manageable, and some — like in the main hospital of Liège — have been finding ways to transfer patients to less-strapped facilities.
“We are lucky that our intensive care capacity, together with Germany, is one of the biggest in Europe,” Van Gucht said. “There are other areas in Europe who don’t have that capacity, such as the Czech Republic or Ireland.”
“But we shouldn’t soothe ourselves with that knowledge, because the situation can evolve very rapidly,” he added.
So what should Belgians expect next? When the newly appointed Prime Minister Alexander De Croo took his oath a few weeks ago, he pointedly said he wants to avoid a new lockdown: “Let me be very clear: Our country, our economy and our businesses can’t handle a new general lockdown,” he told the federal parliament. And on Thursday, he reiterated that position in front of the parliament and dismissed rumors that a new lockdown might be on the table at a meeting with lawmakers.
But for now, ahead of the meeting Friday, pressure from politicians and experts alike is building on leaders to take tougher action. In the French-speaking south, worst hit by the virus, there’s an especially strong consensus that current measures won’t suffice.
Walloon Premier Elio Di Rupo, for example, said that new and stricter measures are “inevitable,” while Emmanuel André, who used to be in charge of the Belgian testing and tracing strategy, told Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Wednesday that a lockdown is the only remaining option.
“We should no longer ask ourselves what to close,” he warned. “We have to ask ourselves what to leave open.”
Camille Gijs contributed reporting.
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