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As coronavirus grips EU, how is Belgium responding?

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As EU countries fight the coronavirus outbreak with measures ranging from all-out lockdowns to the rationing of supplies, Belgium remains more reluctant to adopt disruptive containment measures, even as leaders say they expect the virus to keep on spreading.

Since the first active case of the coronavirus was confirmed at the start of March, the number of confirmed cases has risen daily, standing at 267 as of Tuesday.

Belgium’s first confirmed Covid-19 case has been the only patient to have recovered from the virus. The patient was a Flemish man who was repatriated from Wuhan and who tested positive in early February but was asymptomatic.

What measures is Belgium taking?

As the outbreak picked up pace in the country, Belgium kicked into “Phase 2” of a 3-phase national risk containment plan, which aims to keep the virus from spreading further among the population.

The official advice for the general public remains largely dependent on citizens’ own awareness and response to at least three symptoms believed to signal an infection with the novel Covid-19 coronavirus and which are common to other respiratory ailments: fever, coughing and breathing difficulties.

Besides focusing significantly on personal hygiene, the current approach also keeps doctors on the front lines of the response to the outbreak, since it is up to them to decide whether a patient’s symptoms warrant a coronavirus test.

“Citizens should stay home if they develop symptoms,” Vinciane Charlier, spokesperson for the federal public health services (FPS Santé) told The Brussels Times, adding that it was “essential” that these people put themselves in isolation.

Charlier also said that when it came to testing for the virus, priority was given to patients with “heavy” symptoms and to health care professionals.

“People with mild symptoms must not be systematically tested but should absolutely contact their doctors,” she added.

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Limiting anxiety with ‘social-distancing’

On Tuesday, Interim Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès emerged from an hours-long meeting with representatives of Belgium’s regional governments, attempting to quench public concern with a new set of “complementary” but non-compulsory “social-distancing” measures, essentially in the form of advice to schools and companies.

“We do not want to add more anxiety to the anxiety,” Wilmès told reporters at a press briefing. “We are on an enhanced ‘Phase 2,’ whose objective is to limit the spread of the virus.”

“Why now? Because it wasn’t necessary before,” she added, explaining that the complementary measures were rolled out now in order to curb the rise of infections that took place within the country, in which travelling abroad was not a factor.

Wilmès said that organisers of indoor events gathering more than 1,000 people would do well to postpone the event, a recommendation which does not apply to outdoor gatherings. Wilmès said that it will be up to mayors to decide whether to forcefully cancel such events.

Even after confirmed coronavirus cases have popped up among pupils and teachers across Belgium, leaders on Tuesday ruled out school closures for the time being, but advised school trips abroad and celebratory events on school grounds to be postponed.

Companies were encouraged to allow employees to work from home in an effort to limit the number of commuters in the country’s public transport systems as well as to “slow down,” the spread of the virus.

To top off the new advisory measures, Wilmès told reporters that citizens should refrain from shaking hands or greeting each other with kisses and doubled down on personal hygiene advice to individuals, particularly regular and thorough hand-washing.

No measures to broaden the criteria for testing people for the virus were announced, even as scientists on the ground warned that limited testing could mean infected patients were slipping through the cracks.

Charlier declined to provide an explanation of Belgium’s response to the outbreak, saying that decisions fell under the competency of federal officials. A spokesperson for Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block’s did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

What is the rest of the EU doing?

The entire European Union (EU) is now in the grip of the outbreak after Cyprus became the last member state to confirm its first two cases of the virus on Tuesday.

Since it first hit Italy’s northern regions, the epicentre of the EU’s outbreak, the virus quickly branched out through the Continent, following flows of travellers moving across its open borders amid the winter and carnival holiday breaks.

As Germany hit 240 confirmed cases in early March, just under Belgium’s current number, the government implemented a ban on exports of protective medical gear in an effort to prevent shortages, a move criticised by Belgian health officials.

At the end of February, when the number of confirmed cases was lower still, German officials said they would tighten controls at their borders to slow down the disease’s spread.

This week, Poland (16 confirmed cases, according to WHO data) and Austria (158) announced similar measures.

Last week, as Greece reached over 30 confirmed cases (there are currently 89), it followed in the footsteps of Switzerland, who on 29 February issued a compulsory ban on public gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

On Tuesday, the Czech Republic (40 cases), mimicking a move by France,(1,412 cases) announced that schools would shut down “indefinitely” and also banned gatherings of more than a hundred people, in a move which came one week after the first case was reported on their territory.

Spain on Monday issued orders to shut down all schools, from kindergartens to universities, in the entire capital region of Madrid for a period of two weeks, after a spike in confirmed cases pushed the country to 1,024 confirmed cases. School closures had already been announced in the northwestern Basque Country region.

As the EU’s ground-zero and as world’s most hard-hit country by the virus after China, Italy has been the stage of the most drastic measures to fight the new coronavirus.

A lockdown which initially applied only to the northern regions was on Monday extended to the entire country, putting its 60 million inhabitants under quarantine and severe restrictions on free movement.

According to aggregated data from official government counts, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic all have lower rates of contagion per million inhabitants than Belgium.

By contrast, Belgium’s rate of confirmed cases per million inhabitants is higher than those of neighbouring Germany and even France, which, after Italy, is the EU’s second most hard-hit country.

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times