When a COVID-19 epidemic broke out in Italy and threatened to spread across Europe, the polarized parliament of Belgium, the fragmented government (the country has nine federal and regional health ministers) and the government minority agency workers were gravely concerned. with the acute public health crisis sweeping across the country.
Despite the political crisis that has paralyzed the country, most of the quarreling parties have decided to place public health above partisanship, demonstrating the pragmatism that made the reputation of Belgium. Parliament has granted interim Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes and the National Security Council sufficient emergency powers to deal with the impending crisis.
Wilmes, who led the interim government in October 2019, has been at the center of the greatest crisis for generations. His cool-headed, discreet, soothing and inclusive performance, which contrasts sharply with the erratic and explosive style of his British counterpart Boris Johnson, has won praise, including from the Financial Times, normally sober and reserved..
The Belgian response has been so decisive and, to date, effective that it has surprised many, including the Belgians themselves.
So what explains the relative success of Belgium in the fight against the epidemic?
An important factor was the speed and speed of the response. Despite some early procrastination, Belgium locked out just in time. The calamity unfolding in Italy at the time concentrated the minds and helped to decide the undecided.
Another, and perhaps the most crucial factor, was Belgium’s highly developed health infrastructure, which, like a collective immune system, has strengthened society’s ability to fight the virus.
Not only does the Belgian health sector rank among the best in Europe, but it already has a very high concentration of hospital beds and intensive care units, which allows it to manage the enormous growth in the number of patients requiring intensive care with relatively few adjustments.
In fact, unlike many other countries whose health systems are overwhelmed by the pandemic, Belgium still has a lot of reserve intensive care capacities, even if the country seems to have flattened the curve. The main weakness and failure has been retirement homes for the aged. Residents of nursing homes are estimated to account for 40% of the number of deaths to date, which is currently over 3,000.
Around the world, blockages and social distancing are proving to be the most difficult measures to implement. Although Belgium implemented what has been called a “locking fire”, it mainly involved the closure of all but the most crucial economic activities, which was only the case in Italy. late in the crisis.
It also allowed people to spend time outside, which seems to have been more effective than in some countries that have imposed a complete lockdown. This could be partly due to the fact that allowing people to go out and exercise or walk responsibly is not only good for their health, but also gives them the opportunity to let off steam, allowing them to stick to other restrictions more easily.
And this has been widely the case. Despite some initial reports of occasional “lockout parties” and some people escaping restrictions while crossing neighboring Holland, the public generally and spontaneously respected the rules of social distancing with minimal need for policing, although on weekdays weekend of Easter saw a spike in violations, raising fears this could lead to a new spike. That said, the public was sometimes ahead of the government, with many businesses and stores closing before the government officially ordered it.
Even though Belgium was already a society in which personal space was respected, it is impressive to see how quickly people have integrated social distance into their daily routines. In the few stores that remain open, people were already standing and queuing well away from each other before markers were placed on the floor. In public outdoor spaces, people also usually moved away from other pedestrians.
The use of good democratic governance, persuasion and consensus building, rather than coercion, has contributed to this widespread respect. This was also accompanied by a transversal commitment to follow scientific advice.
While some politicians in other countries, such as US President Donald Trump, have attempted to overshadow or contradict scientists, effectively politicizing the crisis, the Belgian government’s measured response was not only driven by science, however, the experts concerned were often put forward. in the media than political figures.
Daily press briefings by virologist Steven Van Gucht of the National Crisis Center have become a must-see for ordinary Belgians. Colleague virologist and epidemiologist Marc Van Ranst became an almost daily part of evening news programs, where he explained the rationale behind each new measure and discussed possible future developments.
Another essential ingredient for the success of these restrictions has been the fact that Belgium is an affluent society with a decent, albeit worsening, system of social security and solidarity.
The Belgian state, along with many companies and organizations, decided early on that preserving human life and preventing the uncontrolled spread of the virus was worth a major economic blow. While this causes hardship for many vulnerable people and small businesses, the shock is mitigated by an emergency assistance program that includes deferring taxes, mortgages and bank payments, as well as providing workers vulnerable sectors of temporary unemployment benefits.
These efforts appear to be bearing fruit gradually, with epidemiologists confirming that the number of hospitalizations has stabilized, although the total number of cases continues to increase. However, success always depends on how well people continue to play by the rules, experts say.
The situation in Belgium highlights the crucial importance of investing massively in health care and social safety nets at the right times, not just during emergencies. It is only hoped that once the pandemic is over, politicians, including in Belgium, will remember this lesson and stimulate investment in these increasingly neglected areas, despite the inevitable economic crisis that will ensue.
What Belgium and other wealthy European countries also point out is that such a robust response to the pandemic is a luxury that poor countries cannot afford if struck by this coronavirus.
This raises the urgent need for global solidarity. It is imperative that a COVID-19 global fund be created to help the poorest countries cope with the medical and economic challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as an “army” of mobile rapid response from health professionals who can be sent to coronavirus hot spots as you go. when they appear.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.