Belgians are making increasingly desperate efforts to cope with the recent bitterly cold weather and persistently high energy prices, La Dernière Heure has reported.
According to Marc Gilbert, the Chief of Emergency Services for the Val de Sambre emergency response zone, many Belgians are resorting to burning household items such as plastic bottles, straw mattresses, and old pieces of furniture in order to stay warm.
"To cope with the increase in energy prices, people in difficulty are ready to burn anything," Gilbert noted. He added that such actions — which often lead to clogged fireplaces and dangerously toxic air emissions — have, in turn, caused an increase in emergency calls to Belgium's already-stretched fire services.
"It's not even officially winter yet but if this continues, we are afraid that we will not be able to maintain the current level of interventions," Gilbert said. "For the moment it's still fine, but we are very afraid for the future."
The price of electricity in Belgium on Tuesday exceeded €460 per megawatt-hour (MWh) on Tuesday: roughly ten times last year's price, and almost three times more than in November.
Cold comfort at the office
Meanwhile, employees who are used to regularly working from home are making a more concerted effort to come to the office in order to save on energy costs.
"With the energy crisis, we are also seeing employees massively returning to work," notes Benoît Caufriez, the Director of Acerta Consult. "We see workers in sweaters or jackets during [online] team meetings, but others are trying hard to reduce their number of days of homeworking to save energy at home."
However, employers, much like their employees, are also attempting to save on energy bills by turning down the thermostat — sometimes even to below the legally mandated threshold of 18°C.
"In our office, it's just 16°C, all with permanent drafts; these are not comfortable working conditions," said Laura, who works in communications. She added: "Sometimes we have to work with coats on our back, but our employer does not want to hear anything [from us] in view of the energy crisis. It's becoming unbearable."
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On Monday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claimed that Europe had managed to withstand Russia's energy blackmail, adding: "We are safe for the winter."
Many Belgians, unfortunately, do not appear to feel the same way.