Last month, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pointed to Belgium as an example of a country that had managed to use restrictions on socialising to keep a lid on Covid. Now it has one of the highest case rates in the world
The label on Steenbrugge Abbey beers has a picture of St Arnold, patron saint of Belgian brewers, holding a mash rake. The founder of Oudenburg Monastery, to the west of Bruges, in around 1070, he is celebrated for urging citizens to drink the institution’s beer, rather than water, during an epidemic. They survived. Miracle cure! It took another 800 years to establish quite why this worked: unlike drinking water, the beer wort is boiled during the brewing process.
We find ourselves in a similarly perplexing state of ignorance with the Covid-19 crisis, and Belgium is in a dither, not knowing quite where to turn. Despite a rather good record over the summer, Covid cases are rising again, and, with a seven-day cumulative number of 629 cases per 100,000 (more than three times the UK rate), Belgium now stands in third place (after Andorra and the Czech Republic) among the European nations worst affected by the “second wave”. In terms of Covid-related fatalities, its 922 deaths per capita place it second highest in the world, after Peru.
With fresh concerns that hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed by what Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke has called a “tsunami of new infections”, a new set of social restrictions was introduced across the nation on October 19. This includes new limits on gatherings, a curfew between midnight and 5am, a ban on alcohol sales after 8pm, the instruction to work from home if possible, and – most notably – the closure of all cafés, bars and restaurants for four weeks.
It’s another colossal blow to the hospitality industry. Restaurateurs complain bitterly that they have invested heavily in making their premises as Covid-safe as possible, with socially-distanced tables, Plexiglas screens, mask-wearing and sanitiser – and that the new restrictions are not based on scientific evidence.
It’s another blow to the tourism industry too. As Geert Declerck, owner of the luxurious B&B Maison Amodio in Bruges, says: “If you want a romantic weekend to spoil your wife or your husband, why would you come to Bruges now? You won’t know where you’re going to be able to eat.”
But it’s the quarantine rules that have been the real dampener – especially for tourist visitors from the UK. Belgium has its own rather complex rules for inward visitors. If you come from a high-infection “red zone”, and are staying longer than 48 hours, you may have to self-isolate for 10 days. The UK is mainly a red zone (a map is published by diplomatie.belgium.be, which changes by the day), but some of the south coast, East Anglia and northern Scotland are orange zones, from where quarantine in Belgium is not usually required.
Meanwhile, more significantly, Belgium remains on the UK’s “red list” of countries without “travel corridors”, so visitors returning to Britain have to quarantine for 14 days.
It is fair to point out that those who do venture into Belgium, and who are free to move around (mask at the ready), will not find everything battened down. Shops are open, as are museums and galleries. You can go on a guided tour, or to a concert, even. And most hotels are open – but they are struggling, stuck between a rock and a hard place. As hotels are not obliged to close, they don’t (as things stand) get the federal and regional financial support that was available during the first lockdown. If they have any clients, it’s only very few. Bruges normally has at least 75% occupancy at this time of year: it currently has 7%.
Ypres, where some 40% of visitors come from the UK, normally sees an upsurge around Armistice Day. Numbers have dropped close to zero. The celebrated In Flanders Fields Museum of the First World War would normally have up to 1,000 visitors a day; it’s currently seeing about 150. Peter Slosse, Head of Tourism at Ypres, sums up the dilemma well: “We do realise that our political leaders have to make very difficult decisions and the responsibility they carry is immense. They have to do something – but what they are doing makes it almost impossible to generate any kind of income in the tourist industry.”
And this year there won’t be any Christmas markets to brighten the dark days of November and December: they have all been banned.
The Belgians’ grin-and-bear-it stoicism, which has carried them through countless crises in the past, is beginning to wear thin. Messages and instructions from the new (since October 1) government, led by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, are often seen as contradictory and confusing. The widely criticized testing and track-and-trace system now finds itself dramatically overstretched. Growing mistrust in the authorities and scepticism about the science are undermining the confidence of citizens just when more is being asked of them.
Whereas the more draconian lockdown restrictions of the first wave back in March were largely accepted as inevitable and had some novelty value, the new round of measures has been greeted with a sense of weariness and resentment – and, with the daily accumulation of bad news, fear. “I’m tired of being frightened,” says one Brussels resident, “tired of being angry at those who ignore the gravity of the situation and fail to take basic precautions, and tired of no longer having any kind of social life.”
Meanwhile the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the regional resentments that have historically pitched Dutch-speaking Flanders against French-speaking Wallonia, with Brussels in the middle. The fact that Wallonia has currently recorded higher rates of infection – with its second-largest city Liège dubbed “the new Lombardy” – has invited blame for the measures being imposed on the entire country. The multiple layers of regional government have likewise pitted city against city in the competition for financial aid and healthcare provision. The finger of blame is also being pointed at young people, particularly university students, for their insouciant socialising. “Bref: ambiance détestable,” sighs my weary Brussels friend.
Now there is a real concern that the government may have to turn the screw yet further, reverting to full lockdown once more – perhaps even next week. Many in the tourism sector are beginning to look beyond the winter, hoping for a restart in spring 2021.
Time perhaps to pour a glass of Steenbrugge beer, in any of its forms (light, dark, double, triple), and pray for St Arnold’s protection. Comfortingly strong, it even has a faintly medicinal flavour, from the “gruut”, a mixture of herbs and spices used as an alternative to hops since medieval times. The wisdom of St Arnold may lie in more than just the boiling of the wort.