Little Belgium is a quarter the size of England and has one-fifth of the population, but it has the unenviable record of the world’s highest Covid-related death toll per capita.
Its card was already marked, you might say, but it was really the uptick in new cases since mid-July that has led Britain (second in that death-toll-per-million league table, by the way) to strike Belgium off the “green list” of countries exempt from 14-day quarantine rule for travellers coming into the UK.
This is a blow to the Belgians, but not altogether a surprise. Faced with rising figures, their government recently reversed some of the “deconfinement rules”, for instance reducing from ten to five the number of people from outside one’s family social bubble that each person is allowed to meet per week.
Belgium went into lockdown at about the same time as the UK, on March 17, with somewhat stricter measures. In these early days, news footage showing uniformed police confronting lone people sitting in the spring sunshine in public places had the air of Tintin-esque absurdity. Now the Belgians are relieved that in general the lockdown has been considerably eased: life seems to be getting back to normal – regardless of what the British think and do.
The Belgians are pretty stoic in adversity. Their country has been trashed by historical events enough times to teach them to hunker down, to rely on consensus, civic obedience and community resilience. While they may have a sullen distain for – and low expectations of – their government, at national and EU level, they expect them somehow to muddle through. Apart from the eruption of protests in support of Black Lives Matter – focusing, as ever, on the legacy of King Leopold II, who certainly has a case to answer over the Congo – Belgians have been happy to sit out Covid-19, to mask-up in shops and crowded public places, and observe compliantly the restrictions on socialising. Confined to barracks and working from home, they sewed face masks for health workers and local shopkeepers, and discovered Netflix, Skype, FaceTime and Zoom. Like all of us really.
So what has caused the recent surge of new cases in Belgium? The general feeling is that late-night socialising is a key area of transmission – which is why Antwerp, a particular hotspot, has reintroduced a night-time curfew. Increasingly it is asymptomatic young people, aged 20–50, who are testing positive.
Socialising is what Belgium is particularly famous for. Belgium has a large service and hospitality sector. Think of all those hotels catering for the Eurocrats, the tourists going to Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp – and in particular Bruges (8 million visitors a year). Not to forget also the Ardennes, Liège, Leuven, Mechelen, Mons, Namur, the Western Front. Think of that deep reserve of high-quality restaurants, the pubs selling 300 different Belgian beers, the village friteries. They have plenty of loyal local support, or course. But tourism sustains many of them: it accounts for 5% of Belgium’s GDP.
When lockdown began to ease in early June, hotels in Bruges were quick to email their clients offering the reassurance of utmost sanitary precautions. Museums opened with safe distancing, and suspended special exhibitions were relaunched (Van Eyck at the Groeningemuseum, for instance). Bars, cafés and restaurants reopened under careful Covid regulations. Many Belgians took advantage, glorying in the absence of the throngs, wandering the empty city centres and drinking in a sense of historical moment. The tourists were supposed to be next.
And therein lies the menace of the UK’s new quarantine rules. Belgium used to receive nearly two million visitors from the UK each year. (And indeed one million Belgians went in the opposite direction.) These journeys will now be very much discouraged.
But the Belgians will take it on the chin. They will find a way to accommodate it, just as they have the past trials and tribulations of their history. Professor Piot, one of the world’s foremost virus experts (and a Belgian), offers no false optimism: “The truth is: we are only at the beginning of this pandemic. As long as there are people who are susceptible to be infected, the virus will be very happy to infect us because it needs our cells to survive.” This is the new reality that everyone is going to have to work around.