Divided Belgium among Europe’s worst virus hotspots

BUIZINGEN, Belgium (AP) — Small, yet so divided, Belgium has been hit hard again by the pandemic, and now presents some of the most worrying statistics in a continent reeling under a coronavirus resurgence.

If ever there was a common enemy for the rival Dutch- and French-speaking citizens and regions to fight, this would surely be it. But even now cooperation goes against the grain in Belgium, to the extent that the prime minister had to intervene with a special address to the nation Wednesday, pointing out that exceptional circumstances demand exceptional measures — namely: total unity.

“As of midnight, with immediate effect, just about everywhere the same measures will apply. The last thing we need today is division and a scattered order of battle,” Alexander De Croo told Belgians. “We should not let ourselves be divided.”

His appeal came after talks with regional leaders, who so often bicker and stall and leave rudderless a nation with a federal and three regional governments which are responsible for an area barely 300 kilometers (185 miles) at its widest reach.

After protracted disagreements between the linguistic groups that left Belgium without a fully functioning government for nearly 500 days until De Croo became prime minister of a 7-party coalition one month ago and now, it was time to stand together.

“The only battle we have to fight is with the virus, which knows no bounds of language or color, age or gender,” De Croo said.

This week, news struck that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control had recorded Belgium — shoehorned in between Germany, France and the Netherlands — as having the highest 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 citizens, just surpassing the Czech Republic.

On Wednesday, the top two reversed roles again with the Czechs standing at 1,448.7 compared to Belgium’s 1,424.2 in a standings nobody wants to lead. Both far outstrip even hotbeds like France or Spain. In all in Belgium, 11,038 people have died so far in the pandemic.

All this in a wealthy nation of 11.5 million people where no fewer than nine ministers — national and regional — have a say on health issues. The dictum “less is more” never reached the Belgian high echelons of power.

“A great many politicians can claim power but, in the end, no one is ever responsible,” historian and former member of the European Parliament Luckas Vander Taelen said. He called Belgium’s system of multiple layers of government to serve the 6.5 million Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and the 5 million Francophones “institutional lasagna.”

The pandemic finds in Belgium one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, a crossroad of international trade. Its capital, Brussels, hosts the headquarters of the 27-nation European Union with its steady stream of international visitors. But Belgium’s political makeup, with its multiple regional authorities, also creates a kaleidoscope of different government health measures.

Throughout the crisis, the Belgian population was unified in one thing: The general sense of bewilderment about the ever-changing rules imposed by the different layers of government and a growing confusion caused by clumsy communication. For someone living near Brussels, a bar closing hour or a maximum cap on attending a funeral might face different rules within just 20 kilometers (12 miles).

Late Tuesday, the regional government of Flanders finally considered adapting its coronavirus curfew to match that of the francophone region and Brussels, but then thought better of it. While it stays at midnight in the north of the country, it is at 10 p.m. in other areas, complicating life for everyone who travels from one region to the other.

Underscoring the threat, authorities said on Tuesday, 689 people were rushed to the hospital with COVID-19, 60 more than the record during the March peak. “And admissions continue to rise,” said crisis center virologist Steven Van Gucht. He added that ICU admissions are doubling every eight days and, if it continued unabated, would reach the saturation level of 2,000 patients around Nov. 6.

Even during the health crisis, linguistic strife has raised its head, something which has never been fully contained during almost two centuries and two World Wars, when the whole nation faced one common enemy.

Christoph D’Haese, the mayor of Aalst in Flanders, recently said he would no longer accept patients from Brussels, Belgium’s largely francophone capital.

“Medical solidarity has limits and borders,” he said. Hospital authorities disagreed and insisted that the essence of medical solidarity was the lack of borders.

When the Brussels UZ hospital, with Flemish roots, warned that the capital needed to take tougher action to contain the crisis, the Francophone Brussels Health Minister Alain Maron sniped back that “when a Flemish hospital in Brussels raises a problem, it is a major issue, and when six of 14 hospitals in (Flemish) Antwerp are in the same situation, nobody talks about it.”

Vander Taelen has seen it all before. “So fast, you get to the level of village politics. Even when lives are at stake,” he said.

As Belgium hobbled through the first wave of the pandemic without a fully functioning government, one of the last measures De Croo’s predecessor took in September was to relax restrictions — against the advice of many medical experts. That relaxation is now partly blamed for the record surge this fall.

Charles Michel, the European Union Council President, was groomed in Belgian politics but now says against such a foe as the coronavirus only a continent-wide approach is effective.

“This crisis has already demonstrated that no single country can tackle the situation on its own,” he said Tuesday. “Any management of this epidemic on a patchwork basis, whereby some would emerge better off than others, would serve only to exacerbate the economic imbalances.”

And when it comes to the patchwork of rules in Belgium, the country’s Roman Catholic bishops urged everyone in a letter ahead of All Saints Day Sunday to apply one rule of thumb: “Go for the safest measure, the safest figure. In the short term it is the toughest approach. In the long term, the most secure.”

And most of all, they said, “We can win the battle against the coronavirus only if we do it together.”


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