Postcard From Brussels

20 February 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by Paul Farrar

I’m an expat working and living near Brussels. Back in March when the lockdown was announced, we, along with half of Belgium, went out to a restaurant for our ‘last supper’ the night before their closure. Although Belgium’s Hotels, Restaurants and Cafes (HoReCa) were allowed to re-open during the summer, they have borne the full brunt of the lockdown, being the most put-upon industry despite almost no infection incidents being recorded and all the obligatory track and trace measures that they had in place. Belgium life is all about is HoReCa.

Belgium’s Covid strategy seems to be dominated by a few ‘expert’ individuals, supported by the local media, with an ever-changing strategy as the country tries to follow each of its neighbours by adding their own unique twist to help pretend that they know what they are doing and that they are in charge.

As an example, it was reported on October 20th that the Ministers of Health and Welfare had adapted the corona test strategy:

Those who have no symptoms will no longer be tested, even if you had high-risk contact with an infected person. In that case, a quarantine is still mandatory. If you came back from red zone or had close contact with infected person, but no symptoms themselves? Then you will no longer be tested.

The aim was to reduce waiting times that were too long and to ease the burden on the testing labs. This had an immediate effect on the reported cases as seen in the graphs and did calm things a little.

However, this changed again in November when the Government introduced new travel restrictions and the testing started to increase again.

The state seemed happy to keep shifting the blame of cases to partygoers, worshippers, travellers and expats. Curfews were put in place in many towns and the Police have been out there looking for rule breakers to collect money. At least they just get fined and not put in jail.

Then along came the new variants. It seems strange that no variant has been declared in France, Germany, Spain or Italy. (Are they worried it might be called the EU Variant?) This allowed Belgium and its neighbours to blame others and to then close their borders, much to the dismay of the EU Commission.

Each attempt to change the rules or in some cases relax them saw no change to the data/graphs. Non-essential shops (chocolate shops were always classed as essential) have been open for some months. Now they have recently opened the hairdressers, but they are not allowed to trim beards!

The media keep the lockdown frenzy going with the usual bold headlines:

“Could Returning Expats Bump Belgium’s Figures?”; “Relaxing rules before Easter is ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’”; “Vaccinating 70% of Belgium’s population is ‘not enough’, experts warn”; “‘Nothing but misery’: Flemish health minister lashes out at Moderna”

The vaccination progress in Belgium has had its challenges despite being the home of many pharmaceutical companies and vaccine production. Belgium’s largest vaccination centre in Heysel was supposedly ready two weeks ahead of the opening date and then when it opened, it immediately closed for several days due to an IT issue. The vaccination of EU officials (working for the EU Commission and NATO) is part of the region’s overall strategy, and will start at the same time as phase 1B, at the beginning of March, meaning they will receive their jabs before most other most people. Letters inviting every Belgian resident to get vaccinated against coronavirus are due to be sent out in phases between March and June.

Since the coronavirus crisis began, individuals and organisations have lodged 161 appeals with Belgium’s supreme administrative court, the Council of State, seeking to overturn many of the country’s Covid restrictions. To date, 104 judgements have been delivered. Only three have ended up in the claimant’s favour: the increase from 10 to 15 worshippers at church services, the reopening of campsites and holiday resorts and the City of Brussels’ ban on prostitution, which the court ruled was beyond the remit of a local mayor.

Nearly 185,000 Belgians have been caught breaking coronavirus rules since March 2020 and in my opinion the country is divided between those who remain totally scared about Covid and those who have simply had enough. Brussels/Belgium is hardly associated with the term “a dose of common sense” but that is precisely the dose that is needed here.