After brickbats, the time has come for handing out bouquets…
Readers of my opinion essays in recent months will have noticed that my remarks about Belgium’s handling of the Corona virus pandemic have been largely critical and at times quite severe.
In my speaking out, I am breaking with local traditions. Journalists are no less informed than I am, know full well the failures of governance in this country, talk about them freely over a glass of wine or mug of beer behind closed doors, but almost never write or speak about them in public. The public, for its part, largely ignores the political establishment in its day to day life, knowing that it is not answerable to the voters and suffers from undemocratic procedures of power sharing, the progressive sounding system that keeps this ethnically, linguistically divided country glued together. Regrettably in times of crisis like the past year of the pandemic the glaring incompetence, corruption and nepotism in Belgian political life have shifted from mere excessive fiscal costs to excessive loss of life and have been harder for the public to ignore.
Today I am happy to take a different course and to hand out bouquets.
This is the part of the world where French intellectual traditions are still inculcated more than two centuries after French dominion passed from the stage. That tradition holds common sense in low esteem. The old joke holds true and one still comes across reasoning that says: your solution works in practice, but how good is it in theory?
This past week has seen that reasoning turned on its head, as it rightly should be. Belgium has stood firm in defending the continued use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine despite the cave-in to what can be charitably called ‘an excess of caution’ by its larger neighbors, Germany and France, as well as Italy and states in the always prudent Scandinavian north, all of whom have temporarily suspended administration of the vaccine while cases of thrombosis and deaths among those vaccinated are being investigated.
Three cheers for the De Croo government for spurning the EU-wide mentality of ‘go along and get along’ and for pursuing common sense logic, which tells us clearly that risks of severe illness and death from not taking the vaccine vastly outweigh whatever dangers of side effects may have been reported. Happily the Belgian public also has not panicked, and the no-shows at vaccination centers administering the AZ vaccines yesterday were reportedly negligible. The daily vaccination rates in Belgium have been steadily climbing of late for all vaccine types taken together
That being said, the question of safety of the Astra Zeneca vaccine is being distorted in a PR war in which the company is an active and possibly a malicious participant. Not just by the spin it is putting on the very low reported incidence of grave illness and death following vaccinations in the EU, but by possible suppression of information. I am told by friends in Brussels who have relatives in Warsaw that nursing staff in at least one hospital there witnessed many instances of serious side effects from the vaccine but were told by their managers to just shut up about this lest they be fired. It would be appropriate if this aspect of AZ’s public relations efforts were also investigated.
But, returning to the good deeds of the De Croo government, I call attention to the sensitive, intelligent and, yes, common sense approach it has shown in decreeing lockdown to deal with the second wave of Covid 19 that struck in October 2020 and is still with us. Schools have been partially opened, nearly all retailers are open, personal care businesses such as hair styling salons are open. Meanwhile, the “bubbles” for socializing are being gradually expanded, and there is the promise of further relaxations at the start of May which will affect sports clubs. Horeca remains closed, as well it should be. Cultural institutions are also still on temporary hold, though this may be a case of exaggerated caution.
All of the measures of confinement presently in place in Belgium were passed over the vociferous objections of defenders of our liberties and over commercial interests of those sectors which remain closed. I say “well done” to the De Croo government for staying the course and resisting the libertarians. The country is holding off the resurgent infection rate coming from the spread of the British variant here as elsewhere on the Continent. It is on a high plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. Figures of hospitalizations and ICU occupancy have been rising over the past month to a level approximately double where we were in early February. But the increased infection rate is not increasing geometrically. The medical infrastructure is not under siege. In past days, Belgium has even taken in patients requiring ICU beds from neighboring France, where the health system is being overrun by Covid. This is all to the good and shows the practical effects of the ongoing partial lockdown here.
I have spoken above about French intellectual traditions here. Now I revert to my more usual frame of reference as an avowed “Russianist.” I will speak briefly about the Russian mentality and its relevance to what I see around me in Belgium today.
For as long as I remember, the usual response of anyone in authority in Russia to any request whatsoever from the public is “nyet.” This corresponds to the famously “bearish” predisposition of Russians at all levels. After some discussion and explanation of the personal situation of the applicant, this most often changes to “da.” Meanwhile, in countries with a Pollyannish predisposition, which I will not name here, the facile initial “yes” at the start of a request process very easily turns to “no” at the conclusion.
It was for me quite remarkable to discover in the past two weeks that the Russian pattern of authorities’ responding to requests for assistance also holds true in Belgium. I have in mind precisely my experience with the vaccination process here.
My problem for resolution arose when I acted on the email invitation I received to register for my Covid-19 vaccination. I went to the website indicated and took on face value the statement that we all would have the right to choose the vaccine. I then passed directly to the selection of vaccination center, choosing the one closest to my home address. That took me to the web page of the given center, which informed me that they administer only Astra Zeneca and offering that I choose my date and hour for administration of both jabs, the second one to follow the first by 12 weeks instead of the 4 weeks applied to vaccinations with Pfizer and Moderna due to supply problems with the AZ vaccine.
Then came the unpleasant surprise when the system informed me that there was no way back to selection of vaccination center, that the choice of center once made was irreversible. I then phoned the federal information center and was assured that a change could be made by my generalist doctor or by my health insurer.
Regrettably, calls to the health insurer revealed they only are involved in the vaccination process to provide the federal authorities with lists of their clients sorted by age and priority for vaccination. About vaccines, they can do nothing. My generalist doctor gave me a letter instructing me to get vaccinated only with Pfizer or Moderna, but could do nothing to change my vaccination center.
By the way, to avoid any misunderstanding, my primary concern was to shorten the time for complete vaccination in order to make some unavoidable trips outside the European Union. I was ready to submit to the AZ vaccine as being by far the better alternative to no vaccine. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the number one priority population here in Belgium, residents and workers in old age homes had been vaccinated precisely by Pfizer and Moderna vaccines since AZ was not yet in circulation, and the federal authorities had recommended against delaying the time between vaccinations for seniors.
The situation looked chaotic, out of control. The computer system put in place by federal authorities allowed of no exceptions, was geared only to maximizing the rate of vaccination of the population. If you didn’t like the result you had only one option – not to get vaccinated at all.
In the face of this very big NYET, I summoned the courage to visit one of the vaccination centers which offers the vaccine I preferred and which, by the limited spacing of the two jabs, would ensure completion of the entire process within one month. I requested to speak to an administrator and was sent to one of the offices, where I was instructed to send an email to their attention describing my situation and nature of my request.
At the start of the following week, having received no email in return and finding that no one picks up the phone at the vaccination center, I again went there in person with a copy of my email in hand. This time I was put together with a decision-maker who instantly told me to come a couple of days later at a given time. They were waiting for more deliveries of the Moderna vaccine and could make no promises that I would be served, but would do their best.
Indeed, yesterday they did their best and I got both first jab and a confirmed date for jab number two in one month.
To the very kind people at that vaccination center, I say “many thanks” for your show of human warmth and…of common sense by overriding the computerized system and giving me the jab: one more vaccinated Belgian is one less threat to the ICU occupancy.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021