Scientists and other prominent figures in Belgian society have condemned Belgium's strategy to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic in a “Winter Manifesto” signed by 111 academics. They criticise what they call “tunnel vision and group think” from the country’s government and virologists.
The manifesto, published in full on the website Open Debate, acknowledges the enormous challenges that the pandemic has posed to "just about all areas of social life, science and policy making." It highlights the inequalities that have become all the more glaring since the pandemic began.
“Despite the massive mobilisation of knowledge and despite unprecedented government intervention, we have never been able to control the virus. What seemed like a sprint in March 2020 has become a marathon for which no one was prepared.”
It goes on to denounce the lack of a sustainable long-term vision, the emergence of tunnel vision and groupthink, an undesirable confusion between science and ethical choices, and a lack of transparency, credibility and trust. It takes aim at the media for being “an amplifier of many of these problems.”
A wide range of signatories
The signatures on the manifesto come from everyone from professors and scientists to theatre directors, columnists and philosophers.
It was initiated by epidemiologist Luc Bonneux, who told De Standaard that throughout the pandemic, the virological view “too often prevailed over the general interest.”
“Just as dermatologists think that people only consist of skin, virologists think that the world only consists of viruses,” said Bonneux.
He believes that the government and its panel of experts – who he refers to as “an old boys club” – have gone too far with the Covid Safe Ticket (CST) and that measures are aimed too much at the middle class.
“Thorough reflection” required
The manifesto calls for “thorough reflection” on the pandemic's interference both in society at large and in people’s most intimate personal lives.
“An open-minded debate requires us to abandon the idea that there was or is no alternative. Even within Europe, there was great diversity in the approach to the pandemic, even though all countries invoked ‘the science’,” it reads.
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The document argues that goals should be made according to a long-term perspective that prioritises transparency and makes space for debate. It criticises the dependence on just a few expert voices when it comes to drafting the coronavirus measures and says that Belgium's Covid response has been viewed almost exclusively from a virological and epidemiological perspective.
"In the face of major uncertainties, there is a natural tendency for these experts to be extremely cautious, and therefore make worst-case assumptions... This can lead to a very narrow tunnel vision."