Belgium is entering a “crucial” week which will determine whether recent measures taken to contain a surge of new coronavirus infections in the country will stave off a potential return to lockdown.
State virologist Marc Van Ranst said that the rate at which new infections are detected this week will determine whether more drastic measures will need to be adopted for the coming weeks.
“If the current stricter rules do not work, we will move towards lockdown again,” Van Ranst said in an interview with De Morgen. “We know that that worked, even though it hurt us.”
Van Ranst said that the current week would be key to review the effect of a decision by the Belgian government to drastically scale back social contacts, undoing previous relaxations in a bid to quell a flare-up of the virus.
“During this crucial week, we will be able to determine whether the number of infections continues to increase or not. If there is a further spread of the epidemic, additional measures must be taken,” he said.
Van Ranst said that the effect of the social contact restrictions, introduced late July, were manifesting in phases and that the previous two phases shown that they were beginning to stabilise, echoing an assessment by federal health officials on the daily coronavirus briefing on Monday.
“In the first phase, figures rise less quickly, that is what we are now seeing,” Van Ranst said. “The figures stabilise in the next phase. I hope to see this week that they don’t rise any further — that’s why this week is so crucial. Then, in a third phase, the figures begin to drop.”
‘No crystal ball’
Van Ranst said that the recent resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic, led by a flare-up in the province of Antwerp, would see Belgium fighting the epidemic on not just one, but several fronts, as it attempts to stave off a full-blown second wave.
“As scientists, we are very concerned because, unlike the first wave, there currently is not just one major epidemic spreading in our country — this time it concerns eleven epidemics: one in each province and one in the Brussels-Capital Region,” he said.
The way the virus spreads in each of these territories —particularly at the level of individual cities and municipalities, including those already grappling with serious flare-ups—will largely determine the shape and magnitude of a potential resurgence of the virus in the country.
“At the moment, the total figure for our country is strongly influenced by what is happening in Antwerp: if the figures there fall, the figures for Belgium as a whole will go down — but, in the meantime, the epidemic is picking up in other provinces.”
Van Ranst said that the government’s objective of avoiding to put the country into a new lockdown would be largely dependent on the degree to which the population stuck to the current measures.
“I don’t know how it will evolve, I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said, adding: “This is not about math, but about adding up everybody’s behaviour — if the numbers don’t stabilise next week, tightening is needed.”
“But there are no longer that many options before we quickly end up with a lockdown-like scenario, and nobody wants that.”