After two devastating waves last year, Belgium may have found the right policy mix to bring the coronavirus to heel.
The country of more than 11 million people — which once ranked as one of the most affected nations in Europe — has been keeping infection and death rates low and stable since December. At the worst of the second wave in late October, its infection rate on a weekly average was topping 1,000 per 100,000 people in many parts of the country. Now, it’s around a tenth of that, with the death rate over that period roughly taking a similar drop, according to the public health body Sciensano.
With many other countries in Europe still grappling with surging numbers and overburdened hospitals, some are now asking: Did Belgium actually get this right?
Policymakers and public health experts alike point to one possible reason in common: The government decided early on to avoid any drastic policy changes, including over the holiday season, and instead stuck with the course it laid out in October. When it did decide on easing measures, it did so in gradual and careful steps. This achievement, some experts say, should let Belgium focus on vaccinating its population and exiting lockdown.
“Belgium is under a tight corset that has not loosened up,” said Yves Van Laethem, an infectious diseases specialist and spokesperson for Belgium’s COVID-19 crisis center. “It’s been almost four months. And except for the non-essential shops [opening in December], no other significant element has changed.
“We have several months before us that will be decisive,” he added. “Unless there’s a surprise, we won’t have a third wave.”
Recipe for success?
Last March, the coronavirus took a devastating toll on Belgium, one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. The death and infection rates rose to records highs, particularly in care homes. Measures were relaxed over the summer, but by late September, the country was scrambling to adjust to the danger that colder weather brought and got blindsided by a catastrophic second wave.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo’s government, which took office on October 1 to succeed the previous caretaker coalition, didn’t want to repeat the same mistake. With Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke warning of a virus “tsunami,” Belgium imposed one of the toughest lockdowns in Europe. It closed most non-essential shops as well as restaurants, bars and hairdressers; imposed a nightly curfew; and allowed only one close contact outside the household — even over Christmas Eve — in sharp contrast to much looser socialization rules in other countries.
More recently, the country effectively banned non-essential travel from January 27 until March 1, forcing Belgians to spend their traditional February week off for “carnival” at home. That also contrasts with most other EU countries, with a few exceptions.
However, in private conversations, Belgians often complain about what they see as a muddled paradox. While schools, shops, museums and hairdressers are now open, and there’s much more public life than in the country’s first lockdown, restaurants, bars and movie theaters are closed — and residents must stick to the one-person bubble rule.
Virologist Steven Van Gucht, a government COVID-19 advisor and spokesperson for its crisis center, believes Belgian politicians have learned the mistakes from last August and September, when many experts were still largely underestimating the “awakening force of the virus.” The tide shifted in November with the start of the one-close-contact rule, known as “knuffelcontact” in Dutch, he says. He also points to the decision to not ease lockdown over Christmas.
“It was a very tough decision,” Van Gucht said. “But it really paid off. Belgium is one of the very few countries that experienced no new surge in cases in the weeks after Christmas.”
“Since the second wave, we have tried to be very consistent in our messaging concerning limiting social contacts, travel and respect for the measures,” Van Gucht added. “It’s due to a combined set of stable measures, not a single one. Consistency is key.”
He also praised the “perseverance” among Belgians themselves — for example, on using masks where they are required.
“In the end, as an advisor or a politician, you can say whatever you want,” he said. “But if the people don’t follow the measures, they become hollow.”
Wouter Verschelden, a Flemish journalist and media entrepreneur, sees the overall effort as decent enough, if not perfect.
“Few people can really follow the one person contact,” he said. “But there is a Belgian way of following rules, and it’s called good sense.”
Belgium, like elsewhere in the EU, is now struggling with a sluggish rollout of vaccines. As of Thursday, its rate of doses administered is slightly over 5 percent — within the range among most countries in the bloc — while the U.K. boasts a rate of over 24 percent. But in contrast to some other countries like Germany, where the vaccine “debacle” has become a heated political fracas, open unhappiness with the vaccine rollout is less pronounced.
A bigger problem, as some experts see it, is the country’s multi-layered political system, often referred as an “institutional lasagna,” which has hindered the harmonization of the pandemic restrictions by causing delay, confusion and differences of views over strategies.
For example, Brussels and the francophone region of Wallonia mandate a nightly curfew from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m, while in Flanders, it runs from midnight to 5 a.m. Similarly, health competence is split between regional and federal authorities — for example, medical staff working in hospitals is a federal competence, while staff working in nursing homes fall under the responsibility of regional authorities.
Then there are the discrepancies over the opening of schools. The latest is that Flanders will impose distance learning for all secondary students one week before the February school holidays, while French-speaking schools will keep the hybrid system of distance learning and on-site presence until the break.
“Consistency is still difficult to reach,” said Jean Faniel, the director of the Center for Sociopolitical Research and Information, a Brussels research institute. And with authority so splintered across people and agencies, policymakers can more easily escape responsibility by citing “negligence.” In his eyes, a good example is former Health Minister Maggie De Block’s disputed role in the 2019 destruction of millions of face masks, which left medical workers stranded just before the pandemic hit.
For now, Belgians, like everyone else, are dealing with lockdown fatigue, and recent polls show patience is wearing thin. All eyes are on February 26, when the government’s consultation committee on COVID-19 next meets to discuss the fate of restaurants, non-essential travel, culture and events planning.
“The coming weeks will remain challenging,” conceded Van Gucht. “A well-known danger is again lurking around the corner. People are becoming tired. There is still support for the measures, but spirits are suffering.”
He added: “We’ll be looking how to adapt the measures in a safe way to better accommodate the social needs of people, especially youngsters, without giving too much space to the virus.”
Cristina Gonzalez contributed reporting.
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