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Coronavirus in Belgium: Your general questions answered
What are the trends?
Faced with a mutant form of coronavirus in the UK, the Belgian government has agreed to finance increased genomic surveillance of Covid-19 samples, in order to get a better idea of how prevalent the new strain is in Belgium - and detect other possible mutations as early as possible. From mid-January at the latest, about 20 laboratories around Belgium will work on sequencing the Sars-Cov-2 genome. Each week, about 1,000 positive samples will be analysed. The aim is to examine 2% of all samples against the current 0.5%. A health ministry spokesperson said: "This will make it possible to study the evolution of the virus and its potential mutations."
Four Brussels municipalities account for 10% of all new coronavirus cases in Belgium, according to the latest stats from Sciensano. They are Brussels-City, Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and Anderlecht. The number of new coronavirus cases in Belgium is doubling approximately every nine days, says interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem. People in their 20s are currently the most affected age group.
VUB has developed an online tool, tracking the evolution of coronavirus on a commune-by-commune basis. Using data from Sciensano, the tool identifies which municipalities still have a growing number of cases, while the national trend is one of decline. See www.coronafacts.be
Population growth in Belgium will slow down when this year's official stats are published. The Federal Planning Bureau forecasts a 17,000 population rise this year, instead of the usual annual population increase of around 50,000. It is predicting a 50% drop in migration - people moving in and out of Belgium - for 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Belgium's text-message safety alert system, Be-Alert, has seen an increase in users since the coronavirus crisis began. From 729,000 users pre-crisis, the service now has 890,000 subscribers. More than 50,000 people registered in the week that the stay-at-home order was announced in March. About eight in 10 Belgian municipalities are using the service to get messages out fast to residents.
What symptoms should I be looking out for?
A sudden onset of fever (at least 38°C), a persistent cough and difficulty breathing. The most at-risk groups are the elderly and people with an existing medical condition. If you think you might be affected, call a doctor. They will either arrange a home visit or give you an appointment at a time when no one else is in the waiting room. Do not turn up at the doctor's surgery or hospital unannounced. The Brussels region has created a helpline for anyone who is not registered with a general practitioner. By phoning 1710, you will be put in contact with a GP who can discuss your symptoms with you.
According to a study in the Netherlands, relayed by Belgium's interfederal crisis centre, the earliest symptoms of coronavirus are not coughing, a sore throat or high temperature. Those symptoms tend to appear later. The earliest signs are intense fatigue, severe muscle pain, headaches and a disturbed sense of taste and smell.
Some 30% of people who contracted Covid-19 but did not have to be hospitalised continue to feel ill months later. Doctors have been hearing complaints from patients regarding long-term effects from the virus, and now a study carried out by Hasselt University together with three other institutions has confirmed the phenomenon. The 210 patients questioned varied in ages; the average age of the group was 44. None had underlying causes. Nearly one in three are still sick three months later to the extent that they cannot work or need help to get through daily activities.
Public health institute Sciensano is launching a barometer that will show how many people with Covid-19 who are not hospitalised have complained of respiratory problems. Family physicians who have recorded such complaints from their patients will send this information to Sciensano through a uniform digital system. “More consultations for respiratory difficulties results in more hospital admissions two weeks later,” explained Robrecht De Schreye of Sciensano. “With the data from general practitioners, we can predict with much more accuracy how the virus will evolve and take the appropriate measures.”
Federal police are training six sniffer dogs to detect coronavirus, in a project overseen by ULiège and UGent universities. The procedure takes about six weeks and the dogs, normally used to detecting explosives, should be ready by January. It will be for the government to decide where they will be deployed. Airports, other busy places and nursing homes are among the options.
What do we know about the virus?
At least 7% of the Belgian population - about 782,000 people - have been infected with coronavirus since the outbreak began, according to a University of Antwerp study based on analysis of thousands of blood samples. Officially, Belgium has recorded 68,000 confirmed cases. "Our analysis is perhaps an underestimation," said epidemiology professor Pierre Van Damme. "We are clearly missing many cases of infection."
Since the outbreak began, almost 250 separate pieces of university research have been launched into different elements of the pandemic. Now a new initiative has brought all those pieces of research together in one place. Some of them have already been published, others are a work in progress. See www.covid19-wb.be
Researchers at the University of Liège say there is not just one version of coronavirus ciculating in Belgium, but many different strands. "They have minimal but clear genetic differences, which shows their different origins", says medical genetics expert Vincent Bours. "The epidemiologists studied the postcodes of residence of the infected patients and the dates of diagnosis. From there, they were able to measure the speed of circulation of these different viruses in the country." The researchers recommend testing for at least two different strands of the virus to ensure more reliable results.
Researchers at ULB and KU Leuven have analysed several hundred samples of the virus to learn more about the history of how it has spread. There was no "first infected patient" with coronavirus in Belgium, but several at the same time. These first "imports" were in early February, before the half-term holidays, although it is true that the carnival school holidays played an important role in the virus's spread, especially among people who went on ski holidays in Austria and Italy.
The two waves of coronavirus in 2020 led to 17,966 excess deaths in Belgium, according to an estimate by public health body Sciensano. Covid-19 led to a 16.6% increase in mortality last year. In total, 126,000 people died in Belgium in 2020. In an ordinary year, the figure would have been around 108,000. Excess mortality in recent years, due to heatwaves or flu, has generally caused an increase of no more than 2% in total numbers of deaths.
At least 5,000 of the 17,000 patients admitted to hospital with coronavirus were treated with chloroquine or a similar derivative, Le Soir and De Standaard reported on Monday. At the beginning of the epidemic, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were routinely used to treat high-risk patients. It was not until 27 May that public health institute Sciensano advised against its use, following several adverse side-effects and pending the results of clinical trials into its effectiveness. According to a study by infectiologist Emmanuel Bottieau, chloroquine did not cause any extra deaths.
Long-term exposure to air pollution is estimated to have contributed to 21% of Belgium's coronavirus deaths to date, according to an international study published in the medical journal Cardiovascular Research. The European average was 19%, compared with 27% in East Asia.
Research by Antwerp university hospital and Ziekenhuis Oost-Limburg suggests coronavirus can have an impact on men's fertility. The first results of a study still in progress point to a substantially reduced sperm count for several months after being infected. "We do not have a pre-coronavirus sample but the damage is clear enough," said researcher Gilbert Donders. A second sample, taken four to five months later, showed some improvement.
What happens next?
Coronavirus will remain with us for several months to come. For the virus to be considered eradicated, there must be 28 consecutive days with no Covid-19 hospital admissions.
Epidemiologist Marius Gilbert, one of the 10 experts sitting on Belgium's "exit strategy" committee said: "We will have to remain vigilant for a long time - several months, certainly until the autumn. There will be a risky phase in the autumn, with the return of the cold weather, with more people indoors, with a return to school. This will be the period when all of our preventative measures, including contact tracing, must be totally operational."
The City of Brussels' archive service is busy collecting documents relating to the coronavirus crisis, to keep a permanent record for researchers in the years (and centuries) to come. The archived material includes digital photos of deserted Brussels streets and all the legal documents setting out the various restrictions in place. The archive service has launched an appeal for contributions - including video testimonies from shopkeepers, culture workers and students who have been particularly affected by the crisis. A spokesperson said: "We have to imagine the researcher today who wonders about the great plague or the pandemics of the Middle Ages. This is what we are aiming for in our study. Let us leave traces for the researchers who will examine this troubled period in 50, 100 or 500 years."
One of Belgium's leading coronavirus experts has warned that the country's complicated governmental structure means Belgium is not prepared for a possible second wave of the virus. Virologist Erika Vlieghe, who chairs the expert panel on Belgium's coronavirus measures, told the Flemish parliament's coronavirus committee: "There must be a captain on the deck of the ship. We have met many people at all political levels, but no one knows who is allowed to press which button."
Virologist Marc Van Ranst says the virus will "stay" and become a seasonal illness, like flu. Asked about a vaccine, he said: "Whether it takes 10, 12 or 18 months, it will come. I am confident."
Interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht said: "We think that over time, in a few years, coronavirus will behave more and more like a cold virus. It is possible that it will return on a regular basis. Since there will be partial immunity by then, the consequences will be less serious."
Collective immunity from Covid-19 remains low in Belgium. Among analysis of blood samples supplied by the Red Cross between 8 and 10 June, only 4.3% of people had the presence of antibodies. The samples came from blood donors aged 18 to 75, who were in good health at the time of giving blood.
Seven out of 10 people in Belgium are prepared to comply with a second stay-at-home order, if necessary, according to an RTL/Ipsos/Le Soir survey. 19% of respondents opposed the idea.
What can I do to reduce my chances of getting it?
Wash your hands with warm, soapy water more frequently than usual. Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing with a paper tissue that you then throw away and try to avoid touching your face with your hands. If you do not have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands. Wear a facemask in busy places.
Social distancing is a measure that will need to be respected for some time to come, according to Dr Philippe Devos, head of CHU Liège's intensive care unit. "Social distancing is something that will have to last until the vaccine is ready," he said. "Pharmaceutical companies reckon that's between 12 and 18 months." While the figures are heading in the right direction, Belgium's federal crisis centre says it would be "totally irresponsible to adapt our behaviour" based on individual interpretation of the figures.
Antwerp university's ongoing coronavirus research has found a slight increase in people who say they shake hands and kiss people they meet. It had been around the 5% mark for a long time and has now risen to 10% among respondents who share their home with others, and 17% among respondents who live alone.
A basic carbon dioxide detector could help limit the spread of coronavirus by encouraging people to keep their homes and businesses well ventilated, according to the mayor of Kraainem, Bertrand Waucquez, who previously work in the construction industry. The detectors typically come with a colour-coded display that indicate when the quality of the air is deteriorating - and it is time to open a window to let their air circulate. Waucquez says that, with autumn arriving, people will be spending more time indoors - in schools, cafes and offices. The municipality has already installed 50 detectors in public buildings. Sandrine Bladt, head of the indoor pollution lab at Bruxelles Environnement, said: "The measurement of CO2 is a good indicator for the rate of air renewal, and in times of health crisis, good ventilation must be emphasised."
Can Belgium's coronavirus stats be fairly compared with other countries?
Stats can be interpreted in different ways - and some commentators have compared Belgium's reported coronavirus deaths with other countries on a per-capita basis. And the per-capita figure does not show Belgium in a positive light. But the comparison should be taken with a pinch of salt. Belgium's method of counting coronavirus deaths is relatively thorough - for example: it includes deaths outside hospital.
"The way we count the number of deaths in Belgium aims to give us the best view of the situation," said former interfederal spokesman Emmanuel André. "In Belgium, we count both deaths confirmed by a laboratory test and suspected coronavirus deaths. We count deaths in the hospital network, but also in the community and particularly in care homes. This approach can set us apart from other countries. We will maintain this system which we think is very complete. We will continue to separate out the different categories."
How are the tests done?
The federal government plans to roll out a reservation system for coronavirus tests in order to streamline the system. It would apply to clinics carrying out tests, not to the drive-through test villages. It would also only apply to test centres that do not already have a reservation system. “It will save time for both the patients and the centres,” said Karine Moykens of the testing and tracing working group.
The federal government will release €50 million to increase coronavirus testing capacities. Public health institute Sciensano estimates that, with the flu season approaching, it will be necessary to carry out up to 70,000 coronavirus tests per day. Minister Philippe De Backer said more walk-in testing facilities, such as the one opened last week in Antwerp, were the way forward. "We cannot expect GPs to prescribe so many tests per day," he said. "The testing village in Antwerp is a good example of how we can organise the flow of people. This will be essential in cities."
The Brussels region has opened a coronavirus testing facility in a marquee on the edge of Cinquantenaire park in Etterbeek, next to Merode metro station. The facility is capable of carrying out 1,200 tests per day, bringing the region-wide total daily testing capacity to 4,500. It is reserved for asymptomatic people who have made an appointment in advance. Results are available within 48 hours. The centre has been funded by the municipality of Etterbeek to the tune of €700,000 over six months. Three more test centres are due to open in Brussels in the coming weeks.
After Cinquantenaire park, a second mobile testing "village" has opened in Forest, on Avenue Jupiter, run by the Red Cross and funded by Brussels' bilingual Common Community Commission. It is expected to remain open until at least March next year and is accessible by appointment only to limit queuing. You must have a prescription for a coronavirus test from your GP and book a slot at www.testcovid.be. The aim is to alleviate the pressure on hospitals, and the Forest centre is capable of performing 1,680 tests per day. Two more testing centres are expected to open soon, in Anderlecht and at Heysel, each capable of 1,440 tests per day.
A new Covid-19 testing centre has opened at the Saint-Jean Clinic on Boulevard Pachéco in the centre of Brussels. The centre is equipped to carry out up to 1,400 tests a day. Patients with a doctor’s note can just show up at the test centre; others must make an appointment. Anyone returning from a red zone, wanting to travel outside of Belgium or who has been contacted by a Contract Tracer is required to be tested. The test centre is open weekdays from 9.40 to 17.30.
The federal government plans to put extra pressure on laboratories that are too slow to produce coronavirus test results, or that supply incomplete data to the authorities. Labs that are too slow risk financial penalties. The government expects a confirmed positive test result to be communicated to public health institute Sciensano within an hour, as speed is of the essence in the contact-tracing effort.
Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem has warned that unofficial coronavirus testing centres are starting to appear in parts of Belgium. Not accredited by the authorities, these commercial operations claim to offer a fast result - but you will find that the test is not reimbursed. RTBF reports that one, in a shopping centre in Liège, offers a quick-turnaround antigen test for €48, which has not been validated by the Federal Medicines Agency, and the risk of a false negative is high. The Liège tests are carried out by a nursing student, not a clinical biologist. Van Laethem says such tests are "purely informative" and have no official value. In the event of a positive result, public health institute Sciensano is not informed - and contact-tracing therefore cannot be carried out.
A new walk-in coronavirus testing service, without the need for an appointment, has opened at Molière Longchamp hospital in Forest. It is part of the Brussels region's plan to double testing capacity in the capital by September. It's open without a prescription from 12.00 to 16.00, at Avenue Molière 32. Results are available within 48 hours.
The City of Antwerp has opened a "Covid test village", capable of taking up to 4,000 samples per day. The service is designed for Antwerp residents who do not have any coronavirus symptoms, but who wish to be tested nonetheless. They must register in advance. The test will be free and the samples will be analysed at a new lab within the University of Antwerp, so as to not add extra workload to existing labs. Anyone with possible symptoms should not use the new facility, but contact their GP instead.
UZ Brussel university hospital has moved its coronavirus testing facility to its car park. The drive-in service aims to save time and make the hospital safer for everyone. Adults with a scheduled appointment at the hospital should turn up at the drive-in two days earlier, at an agreed time. Drivers can stay in their car. Anyone coming by public transport can walk through the testing facility. The results are known the next day.
A court in Liège has ordered the Belgian state to honour its €23 million contract to buy 3.5 million coronavirus antibody tests from supplier Zentch. The firm has been in a legal dispute with Belgium, after it won the fast-track contract, without a full public call for tenders. In his ruling on Tuesday, the judge in Liège said Zentech had been placed in a position where it had been unable to fulfil its side of the deal, because the Belgian state had failed to provide any details of where the 3.5 million tests should be sent. Belgium has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the antibody tests. It submitted a report from public health insitute Sciensano, challenging the reliability of the tests, at the last minute, but the judge said it could not be taken into account because it was incomplete and written in English without a translation. Zentech said it had provided guarantees when signing the contract that it would be liable for any shortcomings.
It is possible to ask your doctor to prescribe an antibody test, costing €9.60, to find out whether you have come into contact with the virus. According to an early batch of results - 1,000 tests in two days - a large number people who thought they had been in contact with coronavirus, and were potentially immunised, are not. Only 5-10% of the serological tests came back positive.
Three Walloon biotech firms have developed a new coronavirus antibody test that can provide results in 15 minutes. Coris BioConcept, Unisensor and Bio-X Diagnostics say it is a world-first in the detection of immune responses against Covid-19. The consortium wishes to make this test accessible to as many people as possible through pharmacies, GPs and retirement homes. However, self-testing kits are currently banned by Belgium - so a law change would be necessary.
What about a vaccine?
Belgium should receive a first batch of coronavirus vaccines in the spring, thanks to orders for millions of doses placed by the European Commission, health minister Frank Vandenbroucke told parliament this week. Since June, the Commission has embarked on discussions with a range of pharmaceutical companies developing vaccines against coronavirus. Six vaccines are currently being examined.
Belgium's federal medicines agency believes a first batch of coronavirus vaccines could be ready for March 2021. FAMHP director Xavier De Cuyper is involved in European Union negotiations with manufacturers of potential vaccines. "On the basis of all the information I have, I dare to say that in March 2021 we could have a vaccine against Covid-19 in Belgium. It is a realistic deadline," he said. "A first European delivery will probably involve 50 million doses. Belgium will receive around 1.2 million."
More than 400 people have volunteered to test a potential coronavirus vaccine, developed by the Belgian lab Janssen Pharmaceutica and its parent company Johnson & Johnson. The first tests should be carried out in mid-July, two months earlier than planned. More volunteers are needed - 500 are needed for the first phase. They will be compensated up to €1,500.
Brussels Airport is getting ready to be the main base for receiving and transporting the first coronavirus vaccines. The airport's cargo department, Brucargo, is drawing up plans to ensure a safe and efficient distribution. The airport has 30,000m² of temperature-controlled storage space, as the vaccine must be kept at between 2°C and 8°C throughout the supply chain.
A working committee has been set up to advise the Belgian government on which coronavirus vaccine(s) it should purchase. While no pharmaceutical group has reached the final phase of clinical trials yet and a vaccine is not expected before the end of the year, the group is making preparations already and met for the first time on Tuesday with the aim of agreeing on the selection criteria. A first potential vaccine is already being examined - that produced by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
The EU has signed a second contract for the distribution of a vaccine against Covid-19. The contract is with Sanofi-GSK, which is currently running a trial on a potential vaccine. The contract ensures that 300 million doses will be delivered to member states. A contract had previously been signed with AstraZeneca. The EU helps fund the development of the vaccines in exchange for a certain number of the first doses manufactured.
Belgium has banned the export of flu vaccines, to ensure the country has enough supplies in the face of higher demand for the seasonal flu jab this winter. The Belgian government has acquired 2.9 million vaccines this year, about 10% more than in previous years. A royal decree prohibits their "sale or supply to people established in another EU member state or the transport of drugs to a place outside Belgium" until the end of February 2021.
How is Belgium handling this?
A study by an Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute, has ranked Belgium 72nd out of 98 countries for how well it has handled the pandemic so far. New Zealand came top, Brazil last. The ranking is based on six criteria, including confirmed numbers of cases, deaths and testing capacity. The report's authors wrote: "In general, countries with smaller populations, cohesive societies and competent institutions are best placed to deal with a global crisis such as a pandemic."
Belgium has appointed a "Covid commissioner" whose job will be ensure the smoothest possible cooperation between federal government departments and Belgium's regions and language communities in the fight against coronavirus. Pedro Facon was appointed on Tuesday by new prime minister Alexander De Croo. "He has already played a major role in the management of the first wave," De Croo said. The Belgian authorities also want to vaccinate a wider section of the population against the flu this winter, to ease the pressure on the healthcare system, which will soon find itself dealing with seasonal flu and Covid-19 at the same time. A budget of just over €35 million euros this year and €45.5 million euros in 2021 is planned to support this strategy.
Belgium's former interfederal spokesman in the fight against coronavirus, microbiologist Emmanuel André, said there was a lack of leadership within the federal government when the first wave broke out. Giving evidence at a special committee examining the management of Covid-19 in Belgium, André singled out former health minister Maggie De Block. "We did not see real leadership, which is a shame," he said. "One would have thought that the federal health minister would fill this role. But the epidemic was not her thing. We therefore saw many experts speak out when there should have been one leader." André said regional governments had worked well together - sending test samples and Covid patients to other parts of the country as the need arose - but added: "It is important to have a system that is as large and heterogeneous as possible. If we limit it to the regions, we are heading towards new problems."
The scientific experts who have given up their time, free of charge, to advise Belgium's government on coronavirus since March will, from now, be paid according to La Dernière Heure. The 24 experts sitting on the newly formed GEMS advisory panel, will receive about €50 per hour spent in meetings.
Belgium's management of the coronavirus crisis "shows a lot of flaws and inadequacies", according to a group of scientists and academics in an open letter published in Le Soir. They say the stay-at-home period has led to a 30% increase in deaths due to non-coronavirus causes, as people put off ongoing medical care. The letter's authors are also critical of the economic impact of Belgium's coronavirus restrictions, adding: "€50 billion has evaporated. Never has so much money been spent on saving so few lives."
Virologist and interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht has responded to criticism that Belgium was too slow to act against the coronavirus outbreak. Scientists Philippe Devos and Marc Wathelet, who were the first to alert the government to the threat, told VRT's Terzake programme that Belgium intervened too late. Van Gucht said their claim was "a bit exaggerated", adding: "Since the start of the crisis, we have taken the situation very seriously. From January we were busy day and night. All possible scenarios have been taken into account. The reality is that no one could calculate precisely what the impact of the corona outbeak would be." Did Belgium shut down too late? Van Gucht said: "When we announced the shutdown, we had 560 infections and three deaths. We confined much faster than the Netherlands or the United Kingdom. The first local case occurred on 1 March. Twelve days later, we shut down."
Two federations representing Belgian nurses are taking legal action against the Belgian state and federal health minister Maggie De Block, claiming they acted negligently during the coronavirus crisis. The National Federation of Belgian Nurses (FNIB) and the Federation of Independent Belgian Nurses claim medical staff, especially nurses, were put in danger and that Belgium showed a lack of preparedness and foresight. They point to a shortage of protective gear, a lack of systematic testing of healthcare workers and little psychological support. Some 56 nurses have registered as civil claimants in the class action. The federations said they tried to alert the minister and the authorities to "difficult and dangerous situations", adding: "All of these attempts were unsuccessful."
Wablieft, the newspaper published in simple Dutch, has awarded Flemish scientist Steven Van Gucht with its annual prize for the use of clear language. Van Gucht is a virologist at the public health institute Sciensano and is tasked with leading the Dutch-language portion of the morning press conferences addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. He is also a regular guest on the news and talk programmes and quoted almost daily in Flemish newspapers. “Steven Van Gucht always communicates at an accessible level but without losing any nuance,” said Wablieft. “His voice and face radiate confidence; he always remains patient and calm and gives us the feeling that we can survive this virus.” He also makes complicated scientific concepts relatable to the public, the newspaper said. “He only touches on facts and information that are useful to citizens. Corona has had a gigantic impact on our daily lives and on our society, so clear communication is crucial. It can even save lives.”
Belgium spent €4.3 million on a drug found to have no significant impact whatsoever on the chances of surviving Covid-19. The World Health Organisation published a study in mid-October indicating that Remdesivir did nothing to reduce the length of hospital stays or the number of patients requiring a ventilator. Two weeks later, Belgium bought 12,300 doses at a cost of €345 per dose.
A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit claims Belgium had the worst response to the coronavirus crisis out of 21 OECD countries. Belgium ranked bottom with a score of 2.11 out of four. It scored well for its testing capacity, but scored poorly for its death rate per capita. Federal health minister Maggie De Block said the stats "did not tell the whole story", to which virologist Emmanuel André replied: "The numbers still say something. We cannot deny everything if we are to learn from our mistakes."
Belgium's communication to residents during the coronavirus crisis has been "catastrophic", according to the mayor of Saint-Josse, Emir Kir. Speaking to TV channel LN24, he said: "It is not the municipalities that are responsible for the health crisis, it is the federal state." Kir added: "Sometimes you have to wait four or five days for a result. Everyone knows that tracing is inefficient. People are not contacted, do not follow the rules. Quarantine is not mandatory. We are in a situation where the rules applied by the federal government are not really applied. I have not received any information on a coronavirus cluster in my town. Not one. How do you expect me to be able to act locally?"
The minister-president of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation says there are too many experts giving their thoughts in the Belgian media about the coronavirus crisis. Pierre-Yves Jeholet, who sits on the national security council, said: "The experts contradict each other and some like to play on fear. It is perhaps necessary that these experts talk less." Prime minister Sophie Wilmès said it was wrong for politicians to criticise the scientific experts, adding: "The experts advise, the politicians decide." She acknowledged that the experts often had conflicting opinions, but said this was normal: "Public debate is very healthy, but when you try to get a message across, it's more difficult."
Belgium's handling of the coronavirus crisis has won praise from British newspaper the Financial Times and could be "a useful example to other countries". Its Brussels correspondent Jim Brunsden writes that Belgium's daily briefing "is fronted not by politicians, but by scientific experts and spokespeople of the Belgium government’s crisis centre", the paper says. "The briefings are an opportunity to scotch rumours and conspiracy theories, counter misunderstandings and admonish attempts to evade the conditions. The briefings have also focused on the human impact, emphasising the importance of mental health, and countering the spread of false information." The FT concludes: "Contrary to what many might have predicted, Belgium’s government has shown that a deeply fragmented country can still produce a clear, decisive response to a national crisis. Here’s hoping it continues."
The Brussels parliament has formed a Covid-19 Commission, tasked with investigating the first wave of the coronavirus to determine how the second wave can be better handled. The commission will begin hearing expert opinions next week from a variety of sectors, including health and welfare and trade unions. “The epidemic was unexpected for everyone, and we need to learn its lessons,” commission Chair Rachid Madrane (PS) said. “It is not the intention that heads will roll or to blame any policymakers. We simply want to come up with recommendations.”
Belgium ordered a million coronavirus antibody tests that have since been found to be unreliable, it has emerged. DiaSorin had a detection rate of just 84.6%, according to a major comparative study of 16 serological tests carried out by scientists from several university hospitals in Denmark. In early April, Belgium's federal agency for medicines and health products ordered a million of the test kits for labs, to test the immunity of medical personnel. Minister Philippe De Backer said that due to limited supplies and a shortage of time, a large number of tests from different manufacturers was ordered quickly. The aim had been to stockpile fast and "not to select the best one".
Four Belgian coronavirus experts are receiving police protection after receiving threats from the public. Virologists Marc Van Ranst and Erika Vlieghe have confirmed that they and two others have been targeted. Vlieghe said: "Threats were made against us. The investigating judge has deemed the threats serious enough to call for police protection."
Three physician associations – Domus Medica, the Belgian Society of Intensive Care Medicine and the Belgian Association of ER Doctors – have penned an open letter to the National Security Council to communicate their disappointment at the council’s decision to relax some measures related to the coronavirus. “Everyone in Belgium, including GPs, emergency doctors and intensive care staff, looked forward to these announcements with hope,” the letter read, “so the surprise, and even disbelief, after the press conference was all the greater. The National Security Council had a unique opportunity to make the transition to a new system for the future. Because, yes, the rationale for a number of measures was no longer valid and, yes, we need a clear and simple system for the coming months. That the measures be adapted (such as no facemasks in the open air) and wanting to cut back on the proliferation of local guidelines is a good thing, but at the same time the perception that has been created that all measures can be relaxed (more contacts, more parties , shorter quarantine) is catastrophic.”
Staying safe online
A growing number of coronavirus-related scams are doing the rounds online, Belgium's federal computer crime unit has warned. They include fraudulent listings for disinfectant gel and masks and fake online shops claiming to sell medical supplies. There are also reports of scammers visiting elderly people door-to-door, claiming to be from the town hall and offering to disinfect their home. For more info about common online scams, see www.safeonweb.be
Consumer protection body Test Achats has set up an online platform to specifically address coronavirus-related scams and fraud. The group is also monitoring price increases for medical supplies. See www.test-achats.be/stopabuscorona
A series of scam messages are doing the rounds on WhatsApp and via SMS, claiming to be from the Red Cross. The message says the recipient is entitled to a €234 "Covid premium". For the avoidance of doubt, a spokeswoman said: "The Red Cross is not responsible for giving money to Belgian households." Screenshots of fraudulent messages can be forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org
Some 450 cases of suspected "fake news" on social media have been investigated by federal police since the coronavirus crisis began. Half of these, 237 in total, led to social media posts being voluntarily deleted. A federal police taskforce is responsible for scouring the internet for misinformation. They are looking for stories that have been "intentionally fabricated to exploit vulnerabilities with the intention of undermining public institutions".
Scam text messages are being sent out, claiming to be from Belgium's official contact tracing centres. The messages say you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive - and that you should click the link to find out more. Official contact from the contact tracers will come from the phone number 02 214 19 19, or by text message from the number 8811.
What is the economic impact?
Belgium's gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2020 was 2.8% down on the same period last year, the Belgian national bank has confirmed. The coronavirus crisis has put an end to five and a half years of falling unemployment in the Brussels region. At the end of April, Brussels had 87,271 jobseekers - an unemployment rate of 15.5%. The number of job vancies listed at Actiris has almost halved in April to 1,677.
Brussels chamber of commerce Beci fears that 52,000 jobs could be lost permanently in the capital because of business closures and restructuring following the coronavirus crisis. In Brussels, 160,000 people are currently on temporary unemployment. Beci believes many of them risk finding themselves permanently unemployed in the weeks and months to come. Another 10,000 temp jobs in the capital are forecast to disappear.
According to Flemish business body Voka, the coronavirus crisis could cost the Belgian economy €16 billion. Brussels chamber of commerce Beci says more than half of the region's businesses have lost at least 75% of their turnover. Belfius bank forecasts that the Belgian economy will shrink by 5% this year - but it says the recovery should be "rapid" and "solid". The National Bank of Belgium is forecasting an "V-shaped" economic fallout from coronavirus - an 8% drop in GDP this year, followed by an 8.6% rebound in 2021.
A series of measures to support freelances and small businesses has been announced. The deadline for paying second-quarter and third-quarter social charges has been extended to 15 December. The deadline for paying VAT has been extended by two months.
Belgium's four biggest banks - ING, BNP Paribas Fortis, KBC and Belfius - have all agreed to offer businesses a break with their loan repayments - and to make it easier for firms to borrow if they need to. The Brussels government has set aside €110 million to help business in difficulty. The social security body for self-employed people, Inasti, has a helpline for independent workers facing difficulties: 0800 12 018 (weekdays 8.00-20.00). The Brussels Hotels Association says the majority of hotels have closed, and those that remain open are currently operating at about 5% capacity. The Audi car plant in Forest hopes to resume activity after the Easter holidays, after making adaptations to the production line to allow for social distancing. Volvo in Ghent is also preparing to restart its production line.