Belgium activates emergency measures to contain coronavirus outbreak

Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes (C) and Presidents of Regions hold a news conference after a national security council meeting on coronavirus, in Brussels, Belgium, 12 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

After a long meeting on Thursday (12 March) that stretched late into the evening, the Belgian National Security Council decided to take far-reaching measures to fight against the spread of the coronavirus, declaring a state of emergency over the entire country.

Under the new emergency measures, all recreational and sporting events will be cancelled or postponed, while public places like restaurants, bars, cafés and discos are ordered to shut from Friday midnight until 3 April.

Schools, meanwhile, will be closed as of Monday, with a daycare service maintained for working parents with no other alternatives. Kindergartens, for their part, will remain open.

Belgian caretaker prime minister Sophie Wilmès emphasised that the measures were not an Italian-style lockdown, but a state of emergency in which a crisis centre headed by her will take the lead on federal decisions.

There is no need to rush into supermarkets to stockpile food, Wilmès stressed, saying “It is not reasonable to storm the stores and empty the shelves”.

Shops offering basic goods such as pharmacies, and food markets will remain open as normal, she said. And other stores are allowed to stay open during the week, but must be closed on weekends.

Regional feuds on display

Even though the federal government is in charge, Wilmès said all “levels of government have to make sure the measures are applied,” stressing that “cooperation and coordination are the keys to success”.

The announcement of emergency measures came after days of uncertainty caused by the absence of an elected federal government. Authorities at federal and local level were criticised for their poor handling of the situation and lack of coordination that once again brought regional disputes to the surface.

While the French-speaking Wallonia pushed for more restrictive measures similar to those announced in France, Dutch-speaking Flemish representatives were more reluctant, fearing an economic shock.

Belgium’s regional feuds were again on display earlier this week when Flemish nationalist party leader Bart De Wever (N-VA) denounced the “chaos” and “lack of clarity” from the federal government, which hesitated to activate the federal disaster plan.

Prime Minister Wilmès, a French-speaker, called the Flemish nationalist’ approach “a little cheeky from someone who asks for more competences,” reminding De Wever that his party also participates in the decision-making of the National Security Council and had full competences to decide on things like school closures.

Schools suspended

School lessons are suspended as of Monday until the Easter holidays (4 April). They must provide childcare for the children of parents who work in the care sector or do not find childcare elsewhere.

“Closing all schools would be a problem for people who work in the health sector or for parents whose children can only be cared for by grandparents,” Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon said, speaking after Wilmes’ press conference.

“They are precisely the most vulnerable group, so parents who can’t find a solution for their children can still rely on schools,” Jambon said, pointing out that schools are not shutting down completely.

The Association of Belgian Enterprises (FEB), for its part, backed the emergency measures.

“We understand that these additional measures will cause economic discomfort in the short term,” said Pieter Timmermans, CEO of the employers’ organisation. “But we emphasise that acting swiftly and decisively can avoid a further escalation of this epidemic, thereby avoiding much greater long-term economic damage,” he said in a statement.

In a next phase, the Flemish and federal governments will need to consider how to absorb the economic damage from the coronavirus, such as closed catering and events cancellation, Jambon told reporters.

Meanwhile, all recreational events – sporting, cultural or folkloric – are cancelled, “regardless of size and whether it is a private or public meeting.” Public transport will continue to run, but the it is advised to avoid it as much as possible.

“Worst is yet to come,” virus expected to peak in 4 to 6 weeks

As of Thursday (12 March), there have now been 3 deaths from coronavirus with 399 confirmed cases in a population of 11 million, although Belgian authorities say this is still an “underestimate” after people with slight symptoms were forced to be sent home untested.

During the week, Belgium’s health ministry has decided to limit tests to seriously ill patients and healthcare professionals due to shortages of reagents.

“We are at the beginning of the corona storm. The worst is yet to come. I think the virus will be over by mid-May,” Virologist Marc Van Ranst told VRT Nieuws, calling the newly introduced measures “far-reaching, but proportional”.

Van Ranst urged people to protect the elderly, who are more vulnerable to the virus, and minimise the impact of the disease on the Belgian healthcare system.

Steven Van Gucht, chair of the Belgian government’s coronavirus scientific committee, told Belgian media he expects the virus outbreak to peak in four to six weeks.

On Thursday, the hashtag #StayHomeBelgium had began trending on Twitter, as users called for the public to help “flatten the curve” of the contagion in the face of “ambiguous” government recommendations.

EU institutions as well as NATO headquarters in Brussels have also decided to limit their activities, recommending employees to work from home whenever possible and keep meetings to a minimum.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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