Communication from and between the various government levels was “one of the most catastrophic aspects” of the handling of the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium, according to one of the three experts called to testify before the federal parliament’s special coronavirus commission.
Dr Leila Belkhir is a specialist in infectious diseases at the university of Louvain-la-Neuve, and is one of the three experts called by the commission to give their view of the situation. The others are Yves Coppieters, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at the Brussels Free University ULB, and Floor Lams, a risk management consultant.
“How is it possible that we minimised the epidemic to such an extent?” asked Dr Belkhir.
“There was already a pandemic plan, dating back to the H1N1 [influenza] virus. What surprised us is that this working group was never brought back together. So we found ourselves having to improvise to take care of patients.”
But the government’s communications came in for her harshest condemnation.
“Communication was one of the most catastrophic points. It was a mess from the start. You never knew who to talk to and I still can’t quite figure it out. There are too many levels of decision-making,” she said.
“Between doctors, we worked with WhatsApp groups. The first one of us who saw a change on the Sciensano site warned the others,” she said, referring to the website of the federal health institute. Meanwhile the right hand of the government seemed not to know what the left hand was doing.
There was, she told the commission, “a lack of transparency, coherence and clear communication. That feeds conspiracy theories and undermines public confidence.”
Professor Coppieters has been commenting in the media since the start, but was never one of a central group of experts put up by the government, including Professors Marc Van Ranst, Steven Van Gucht and Emmanuel André.
Prof Coppieters pointed to “a centralisation of decisions by a small group of official experts,” and was critical of “a non-plurality of experts who influenced political decisions.”
He also criticised “our inability to seek good experience elsewhere”. He also asked for Belgium to take a critical look at the role and management of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Finally, Floor Lams faced the insoluble problem of the division of responsibilities in the federated Belgium, which among other things leads to a situation where a country of 11 million people has nine ministers in charge of some aspect of health policy.
Lams pleaded for a uniform management of the crisis and called for more clarity in the definition of the roles of each level, particularly between mayors and provincial governors.
“We need a crisis management group with people trained in crisis management,” she argued, adding that anyone likely to be confronted with a crisis should receive such training.
“The corona crisis is not only a health crisis, but also an economic crisis,” she said. “Therefore you have to be able to look beyond just the health aspects.”
The committee was meeting in open session, despite the request by some experts to hold the session in camera, due to the provisional nature of their presentations. A second session will however take place behind closed doors, to deal with the matter of appointing a fourth expert, and defining the future order of work.