A decision by the Belgian government to enforce a mass quarantine such as has been applied in parts of Italy would make little sense in the case of Belgium, according to a leading virologist.
Professor Steven Van Gucht is a virologist for Sciensano, the health institute which is following developments in the coronavirus epidemic closely.
“In the case of an outbreak like the one in Italy, our measures are to call on the population to cancel any participation in mass activities, and to avoid unnecessary travel,” he told Belga. “In a Belgian context it would make little sense to take measures like those in Italy.”
Italy is faced with nearly 6,000 cases of infection by the virus, and 233 deaths by the latest count.
The Italian government has ordered quarantine in the whole of Lombardy including Milan, as well as the Venice region and parts of Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. All cultural events are cancelled until 3 April, while night clubs, cinemas, theatres, bars, dance schools and other places where people gather in numbers are closed until then.
“This country is much too small for that,” Prof. Van Gucht said. “Everything is linked to everything else. We don’t have areas that are cut off from each other.”
The Italian solution is also more appropriate, he pointed out, because the cases there are largely concentrated in the north of the country.
“In the south there are relatively few cases. I think there must have been pressure to keep it that way. But whether it will make any difference? I’m hearing stories already of how people have left the region without permission. That’s how the virus gets exported. That’s a good way to achieve the opposite effect to the one intended.”
Professor Marc Van Ranst heads the reference laboratory at the Leuven university hospital, and has long experience with other epidemics, including the common winter flu and the SARS epidemic.
Speaking on the VRT politics programme De Zevende Dag, Prof Van Ranst also tackled the question of the Italian quarantine.
“There’s not a lot you can do against the coronavirus,” he said. “Quarantine is a proven way to contain infectious illnesses, and has been since the Middle Ages. The quarantine in China was an important precedent.”
Nonetheless, from a purely medical point of view, the effects of the corona virus need to be seen in perspective, he said.
“Over the same period, there are as many deaths from flu in Italy every year. Those fatalities are not counted, they are anonymous, and nobody calls for a lockdown. Seen purely medically, compared with what we know, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s difficult to criticise them. They’ve been under great pressure for weeks.”