Belgium and Covid: An Update

In the wake of the first wave of Covid-19 infections, I issued a couple of essays very critical of the way Belgium mismanaged the pandemic so as to arrive at one of the world’s worst levels of mortality. Notwithstanding the replacement between the two pandemic waves of an interim government operating at less than full powers for more than a year by a new multiparty government enjoying the support of a majority in the legislature, Belgium’s numbers early in the second wave were not very encouraging.  Indeed, looking at the more than 20,000 deaths due to Covid that have occurred in this country since March 2020, half were in the first wave, when there was general confusion over testing, over the value of face masks, over treatment of those hospitalized, and half have occurred since September, when the medical profession and the political powers should have learned a great deal from the past errors.

However, at present it would seem that by one measure at least, Belgium is finally headed in the right direction and, strange to say, is doing far better than other Member States of the European Union.  At the very moment when the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, Spain and a number of other countries in Europe are reporting levels of infection, hospitalization and death that go well above the same measures in Wave One, Belgium has over the past month recorded a very solid retracing in all of these metrics.  Yes, these same numbers began ballooning out as from August and reached frightful levels in October-November, but then the government slammed on the brakes and installed what might be called Lockdown Lite, which struck at the most dangerous spreaders of the virus and left unfettered most of the economy.  All restaurants and cafes were shut, except for take-out service. Bars were shut. All theaters and other venues of public entertainment were shut. All “contact” services, meaning hairdressers, manicure salons and the like were shuttered. All nonessential stores and services were stopped, but only for several weeks, and then reopened. Most important, all schools from primary through secondary school were left open. Only higher education was put on the remote learning regime. And as regards social life, it was curtailed to a great extent by strict limits on receiving persons outside the immediate household or gatherings outside the home.

At present this has reduced the daily number of hospitalizations to 125, those in hospital number less than 2,000 of which those in Intensive Care are down to 360. This, in a country with a population of over 11 million.  The closely watched R number is now 0,95.  The rate of positives from testing is down to 5%.  And the number of tests conducted daily has been vastly increased to the level of more than 40,000 at present. Talk of increasing numbers of infections detected daily, which we find in the Belgian dailies yesterday and today, fail to mention the surge in tests carried out which fully explain the situation.

Kudos is due to the fragile show of courage and perseverance of the present federal government. Experts hold out the prospect that by mid-February daily hospital admissions may fall by half, bringing the medical situation back under full control.

That being said, the patience of the public over the lockdown is wearing thin and each day editorials in La Libre belgique are giving out doses of solace, balm to the feelings of desperation and depression that abound in the population.

Moreover, lockdown is only a time-buying measure until herd immunity is reached via the vaccine. And that is where Belgian authorities now are in trouble once again.  The immunization program is moving at a snail’s pace.  So far only the Pfizer vaccine is being administered and in medicine drop scale.  The priority population, residents and staff of old age homes and similar long term care institutions, are the sole recipients and the schedule for full vaccination in this limited group reaches into mid to late February. There is no transparency on the likely schedule for vaccinating other groups of the population.

Today’s Belgian newspapers announce the arrival of the Moderna vaccine at a number of hospital centers. However, when I phoned one, Iris Sud in Brussels and enquired about the possibility of receiving a vaccination, I was told to take this question up with my communal administration.  I duly phoned Ixelles, who told me that the convocations to vaccination are being handled by the Brussels Regional government, and of course, no one can say whom to address there.

The bigger and underlying issue is that Belgium has access to only a small fraction of the vaccine doses it needs to conduct a mass vaccination program with any sense of urgency.  And beyond that critical failing is…that bureaucratic monster, the European Union, where the buck stops at the desk of head of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen.  In recent days, as critical voices have been raised in various countries over the miserable pace of allocating vaccines von der Leyen has been talking about only one issue: how to ensure that the entire Union marches in lockstep towards….the abyss.

Let us be frank:  von der Leyen was an incompetent Minister of Defense in Angela Merkel’s cabinet and she is proving to be a thick-headed and unimaginative chief executive of the EU Institutions.

One has to wonder how long will the frayed social fabric of Europe stay in place when the Union’s vaccination program makes such poor comparison with now liberated and “sovereign” Britain and with that paragon of vice and incompetence, the United States, which as of today leads the ‘free world” and “rest of the world” not only in numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths but also in the rate of immunization to population.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021