This evening’s edition of European news on BBC World has featured the medical disaster in the making in Belgium, to be more precise in the southern city of Liege and the Region of Wallonia to which it belongs. The reportage focused attention on the directives to medical staff in Liege “to keep on working even if they have coronavirus amid a surge in cases and hospital admissions.” The source of this information is the 10 hospitals in the city of Liege and the head of the Belgian Association of Medical Unions, who told the BBC that “they had no choice if they were to prevent the hospital system collapsing within days.”
The report offers the further quote from this high official in the profession that merits inclusion here for what it says about the ‘in the box’ thinking that prevails throughout this country and makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath and the principle of ‘do no harm’: “Dr. Philippe Devos acknowledged that there was an obvious risk of transferring the virus to patients.”
This is shocking in the extreme. At the same time the BBC reporter did not tweak out something bigger and damning in its own way, because it points to gross incompetence in a profession that is largely protected by guild walls and suffers no reproaches from laymen. I have in mind precisely the fact that 25% or more of the Liege medical staff have caught the virus and are infectious. Half a year after the start of the pandemic, after all that doctors in the medical world have learned about this insidious viral agent, after all that has been done to provide the Personal Protective Equipment that was so sorely lacking in March, the signs are that Liege doctors have not gotten the point any better than the insouciant youths. Have these doctors not learned the medical protocols of their PPEs? Or are they careless in their home lives? The evidence points in these directions. In some countries medical staff treating Covid are kept on the job isolated from friends and family; they live in hotels for this purpose. And in Belgium? While we are pulling back the scabs to look at the wounds, we may ask if our medical staff have finally learned how to work with respirators, which they clearly did not know back in March, judging by the massive loss of life among those in Intensive Care Units.
Belgians complain about incompetence in government at home, behind closed doors. There is very little stomach here for open discussion of the degree and causes of this incompetence, which evidently find full counterparts in the medical profession judging by the disastrous facts in the day’s news about Liege and Wallonia.
The source of incompetence is called corruption, and corruption is built into the political system here by the ultra-sophisticated practice of power sharing that enables the two nations of Belgium, French-speakers and Dutch speakers, to spare one another’s throats and enjoy the fruits of governing without concern over competence or popular will. The problem is compounded by another ultra-progressive political principle built into the practice of governance – proportional representation, which encourages a proliferation of political parties, which in recent decades numbered already double what they had in the 1960s due to party organizations stopping at the linguistic borders. There is a constant search for a parliamentary majority through coalition building, where policy consistency goes out the window for the sake of nose-counting and finding bedfellows however ‘strange’ they may be. Call it “Vivaldi,” call it “Swedish,” call it anything but decisive.
Belgium did not invent proportional representation, which is fairly common on the Continent. But it has suffered more than most other countries from its baleful side effects, such as the unreasonable time to form a government enjoying the confidence of parliament from the last general election in May 2019 to a couple of weeks ago. It was under an acting government that the authorities first tried to cope with Covid.
The time to pay the piper has arrived in the person of Covid 19. It is merciless with incompetence, and we, the people are paying the price. The mortality to population rate in Belgium during the first wave of Covid was one of the highest in the world. To all appearances, we cannot expect better results in Wave Two.
Despite the widespread expectation that a second wave would strike in autumn, the government never prepared dedicated hospitals to divert Covid patients away from the regular hospital services and preserve some quality of medical care for the non-Covid ill. Moreover, it did nothing to pool the expertise of practicing virologists and so raise the chances of successful treatment. Instead bean-counting methods were and evidently still are used to arrive at some notional fair distribution of Covid patients among the existing hospitals, whatever their degree of relevant expertise.
The curfew, closing of restaurants and bars, closing of museums, theaters and cinemas, closing of sports clubs and other curbs on personal liberty that were decreed in Belgium over the past week are good, though not enough to stop the virus in its tracks. That would take re-imposition of total lockdown and no one is yet prepared to take a step which is knowingly so destructive of the economy. More to the point, the measures taken now are weeks if not months later than should have been. It took no insight of genius to understand that the street bars where Belgian youth were partying this past summer were very likely a cesspool of infection because whatever regulations on social distancing there were, you could not count on the young bar personnel to enforce them. Very likely thousands of good Belgian citizens will die as a consequence and no one, least of all the leaders of the medical profession and the political leaders in the previous and present cabinets will pay any price for their failure to act in a timely way.
As the current President of the United States, known for his way with words, would surely Tweet if presented with these facts: “NOT GOOD!!”
Meanwhile, on the more hopeful note, the Belgian dailies Le Soir and La Libre Belgique this evening report on the appeal Wallonian medical authorities have made to The Netherlands to transfer there Covid patients who cannot find hospital beds and doctors where they live. So far the Dutch have said they are taking the request under consideration as they remain uncertain how long their own excess capacity will last.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]