Virologist Marc Van Ranst is out to combat what he sees as two of Belgium’s worst afflictions: coronavirus and the Flemish far right.
As the country’s answer to America’s Anthony Fauci, Van Ranst has become an omnipresent figure on television and a heavyweight political brawler across social media, even hosting a hits-of-the-year radio program and a popular game show. He’s such a celebrity that there are newspaper stories and bets about which color V-neck sweater he will wear for his next appearance, while a song lampooning his daily TV appearances has almost 1.5 million views on YouTube.
Although many scientists across the world seem daunted that the coronavirus has turned them into a target for skeptics and thrust them into the rough and tumble of politics, Van Ranst is in his element on the public stage, even though this means he has needed police protection since the summer because of threats from the Flemish hard right and anti-vaxxers.
“When this pandemic is over, he’ll get so bored that he’ll immediately take on something else,” said Elke Wollants, his lab manager at the Catholic University of Leuven’s Rega Institute for Medical Research, where Van Ranst heads the department of clinical and epidemiological virology. She has known Van Ranst for 20 years and has been accustomed to dealing with his restlessness. “He has so many ideas that I’ve learned to wait with executing them until he repeats them three times.”
The professor himself makes no apologies for using his platform as one of the best-known faces in Belgium to blast off at the far right in the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, who have been critical about the country’s handling of the pandemic.
“I’m simply allergic to the extreme-right,” he told POLITICO. “Why would an academic be afraid to say that out loud?”
Van Ranst’s ubiquity has also triggered controversy, well illustrated by a poll in the cultural magazine Humo. While readers chose him as person of the year 2020, he also ended up second in the category “dick of the year,” after U.S. President Donald Trump.
Before the pandemic hit, Van Ranst already headed three departments at the university in Leuven. Since then, he has been a key adviser to the Belgian government on how to handle the coronavirus, building on his previous experience as Belgian flu commissioner and as commissioner for crisis management during the Mexican flu pandemic in 2009, a job he started two weeks after his son was born.
That experience proved useful during this pandemic, said virologist Steven Van Gucht, Belgium’s main spokesperson for its COVID-19 crisis center. “The Mexican flu was obviously a pandemic of a different level, but a lot of the issues that had to be tackled were the same.”
It was easy for an expert like Van Ranst to take on an outsized role thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Belgian politics. Looking back on the first wave, Van Ranst spoke of a “power vacuum” because of Belgium’s labyrinthine division of health competencies — the country of 11 million has nine health ministers — and the prime minister at the time, Sophie Wilmès, was only holding together a placeholder government.
“At a certain point, Van Ranst and others started to feel responsible for the policy-making,” said Maarten Vansteenkiste, a psychologist at the University of Ghent who also advised the government on its coronavirus policies. “This was because of their involvement and sense of responsibility, but even experts sometimes have to detach from the situation, which means keeping quiet.”
This growing role for experts led to frictions with the government. “Before every new decision, experts such as Van Ranst called for extreme measures,” said one official who was closely involved in the coronavirus approach under Wilmès’ government. “Afterwards they always called it too little too late. That inevitably led to a certain frustration between experts and politicians.”
A spokesperson for Wilmès denied that tension. “The PM always worked well and in mutual respect with professor Van Ranst,” she said. “She personally appointed him as one of the experts who would be working on the exit strategy, convinced of his experience and great expertise.”
Since the fall, when Belgium had its first fully functioning government in years, politicians have taken more control over the way to handle the crisis.
“This is much more comfortable,” said Van Ranst. “In the beginning of the pandemic, we were virologists, crisis managers and spokespeople at the same time. Now that the prime minister and the health minister communicate more and get along better, that’s less work for us, which is fine.”
His prominent role in the pandemic has also increased scrutiny of his political views. On Twitter, Van Ranst often lashes out against politicians from the right-wing Flemish nationalist party the N-VA and the far-right Vlaams Belang, calling Flemish nationalists “extreme-right.”
Right before Belgium’s elections of 2019, Van Ranst tweeted that “a vote for the N-VA is a vote for Vlaams Belang-light. You can’t be just a little bit racist.” His comments often led to heated social media discussions with right-wing politicians and resulted in Theo Francken, one of the leading figures of the N-VA, calling him “Doctor Hate.”
Van Ranst argues his political views don’t undermine his scientific work as “viruses don’t have a political color” and “politics is too important to leave to politicians.”
But his comments contrast with other experts such as Van Gucht, who mostly limit their media appearances to talk about the pandemic. Van Gucht acknowledges that his colleague’s tweets “create supporters and opponents, which sometimes leads to a certain controversy. But he is always able to separate his scientific work from his opinions on other issues.”
He refers to Van Ranst’s professional relationship with Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and the party president of the Flemish nationalists. “De Wever sometimes consults with Van Ranst on the pandemic,” he said. “Their political views don’t stand in the way of that relationship.”
Since the pandemic hit, Van Ranst has been more wary of attacking the N-VA head-on, said Wollants, his lab manager.
Wollants is a member of the N-VA herself and knows Francken personally. “In the past, that has sometimes led to some annoying discussions. But Marc has calmed down, also on social media. It probably has to do with growing older, but also with the massive media attention.”
According to Van Ranst, there is a shift within the N-VA itself. While after the 2019 elections, the party briefly negotiated with Vlaams Belang to form a Flemish coalition, De Wever has since indicated that’s no longer an option.
The virologist has also cooperated more with politicians from the N-VA, thereby getting to know them personally. “I’m allergic to the extreme right and that will never change. But the N-VA of 2020 is no longer a Vlaams Belang-light,” he said.
In addition to the death threats against him, Van Ranst has also been sued by an entrepreneur, who is linked to the Flemish nationalists, for accusations of causing economic damage. Van Ranst won the case.
Van Ranst often responds with humor to his detractors. When vandals spray-painted a bus stop with the message “Van Ranst, kiss my balls,” he turned down the “friendly invitation,” citing coronavirus restrictions. “Corona rules are corona rules,” he tweeted.
Van Ranst’s high profile has fired speculation about his ambitions. In a recent interview, he conceded he “discussed” an offer to become the national health minister with Conner Rousseau, the leader of the Flemish Socialist Party.
A person from the party said there was never a formal offer, but that Rousseau had indeed checked whether Van Ranst would be available in case the socialists would join an emergency government soon after the coronavirus broke out in March. But this never happened.
Jan Callebaut, a leading Belgian communications expert, said Van Ranst is “clearly charmed by the public recognition and feedback of wider segments of the population.” He thinks it’s credible to turn that into a political mandate at some point.
“This is someone who made a clear choice not to disappear into anonymity after the pandemic,” said Callebaut. “He makes every effort to keep a broad public relevance, which he could retain without the acuteness of the pandemic.”
Wollants agreed. “We’re used to not having him around as he combines so many things. He’s a total workaholic, always ready to take on something new. Who’s not to say he won’t become the next rector of our university?”
Van Ranst dismisses the suggestions. “There are few challenges that I won’t accept, but I love my job as a professor and the freedom that comes with it.”
He said he will enjoy a lighter pace once the pandemic is over, “and once I’m rested again, I’m sure I’ll create another sort of hellish situation for myself.”
Simon Van Dorpe contributed reporting.
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