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Health House in Leuven examines how we can live in a world threatened by pandemics

05:49 08/12/2020
From Flanders Today

Health House in Leuven has spent much of 2020 with its doors closed to visitors, but it has not been idle. It recently launched Planet Virus, a multi-faceted project looking at the lessons learned from the corona pandemic.

“We have created a storyline about pandemics and viruses, broader than just SARS-CoV-2,” explains its managing director, Isabelle François. “It’s about what has happened in the present pandemic, and how we can take what we have learned and prepare for the future.”

Health House is an “experience centre” located in the Arenberg Science Park on the edge of Leuven. When you book a visit, you choose a particular storyline to play out on its screens, and an expert guide to help you negotiate the information presented. This means that the same material can be tailored to a professional audience keen to go into detail, or to the broader interests of the general public.

The storylines include the history of medicine, human life from conception to old age, and technologies for the hospital of the future. Others focus on research carried out by Health House partners such as KU Leuven, the university hospital and imec.

The idea of adding a storyline on the corona pandemic came early in the first lockdown. “We tell stories about the future, and we thought: This will have such a big impact that we have to do something about it,” François recalls.

It was also clear that this could not be rushed. “We decided to take our time, talk with all kinds of experts and concentrate on what we’ve learned.”

The main challenge was, and remains, how to deal with such a rapidly changing situation. The films that play out on the Health House screens cannot be updated easily from one day to the next, so they address fixed points in the storyline, explaining the basic concepts and aspects that are no longer disputed.

There is also a role here for virtual reality, which can help people visualise, in three dimensions, concepts such as the structure of the virus and how it works. “We also take you inside the lungs of a healthy person and show how the virus attacks them.”

Aspects of the pandemic that change more rapidly are presented through interactive touch-screens, for example in a “situation room” that provides the latest information on the impact of the virus around the world. Finally, the guides – in Dutch or English – will bring visitors up to date on the latest developments, such as the most recent vaccine trial results.

Throughout the storyline the aim is to open up the discussion. “We look at care homes for the elderly and at the hidden victims of the crisis, such as the homeless and prisoners, and at the implications for mental health,” François says.

It also addresses some of the ethical questions connected with the management of outbreaks. “In order to design intelligent lockdowns, for example, people need to share some of their data, but are they willing to do that?”

And when looking to the future, the storyline takes in factors such as climate change, which will play an important role in the emergence and spread of new diseases.

In fact, there is so much to talk about that François expects the story to divide as it evolves. “We are going to make smaller, focused storylines, so that people can take a close look at the lessons learned, for example, or perhaps get a lot of information about viruses, if that is what they want.”

Planet Virus has also become a test case for Health House’s ambition to play a broader role as a centre of expertise on health issues. In addition to the visitor experience, the storyline chapters are gradually being loaded onto a dedicated Planet Virus website, along with other material that keeps it up-to-date.Health House has also begun a series of panel discussions that explore the issues raised in the Covid-19 story. The first took place in November, with experts from Belgium and the Netherlands discussing ways out of the crisis.

More events are planned for the months ahead – on care for the elderly and residential homes, on the pandemic’s effect on mental health and on vaccination. “We will look at the different kinds of vaccines,” says François, “and also at ethical questions such as who will get it first, who decides, and what happens if people don’t want to get vaccinated.”

This is a topic where she wants an open debate, presenting all the different aspects of vaccination. “We will not force a specific opinion on the public. The mission of Health House is to give all the different elements, in a way that helps people make an informed decision.”

Health House currently plans to reopen for visitors in January. Photo courtesy Health House

Written by Ian Mundell (Flanders Today)