Surely a global health crisis would finally get Belgians from both sides of the linguistic divide to set aside their differences?
No such luck. Politicians from the Flemish-speaking north and the French-speaking south are at loggerheads over how to handle coronavirus.
Across the country of 11 million, the virus has so far caused three deaths and 399 people have tested positive. However, the Belgian government only tests patients that exhibit symptoms as it faces a shortage of the chemicals needed to test for coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès called a meeting of the National Security Council where ministers of Belgiums different governments were briefed by experts and advised that events involving more than 1,000 people should be canceled.
The problem is that it was then left to the discretion of mayors and governments how to implement that advice. While the Brussels region announced the same day it would ban all indoor events with over 1,000 people, the city of Antwerp didnt do the same. “How do you explain to citizens that you can go to an event in the Antwerp Sportpaleis but not to the Ancienne Belgique or Forest National in Brussels? How is that normal?” said Mayor of Brussels Philippe Close.
“The bad news is that the storm that will hit us is inevitable” — Herman Goossens, microbiologist at the University of Antwerp
There was also disagreement within the National Security Council between Flemish and French-speaking politicians. Whereas French-speaking politicians wanted to take more severe measures to contain the virus, the Flemish politicians were more concerned about the economic impact such measures would have.
That disarray brings back memories of the Belgian response to the November 2015 Paris attacks. Because of the terror threat, French-speaking politicians called for more severe measures, such as closing schools in Wallonia, but the Flemish did not reckon such a step was necessary.
Bart De Wever, the party president of the Flemish nationalist N-VA and the mayor of Antwerp, on Wednesday criticized the response of the federal government and asked for clearer information.
But Wilmès fired back quickly. “Thats a little cheeky from someone who asks for more competences,” she said, and reminded De Wever that his party was present at the National Security Council where the measures had been decided.
Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block during a parliament session on Wednesday | Olivier Hoslet/EPA
But De Wever continued to attack the “chaos” because of a lack of clarity. The Flemish nationalists are asking the federal government to activate the federal disaster plan, which can be applied during a crisis that touches upon the entire society.
On Thursday, Wilmès announced that the National Security Council would reconvene in the evening to discuss the situation and possible new measures. In a tweet, she hinted again at De Wevers remarks. “I stress the word together, as the National Security Council was extended to the minister-presidents.”
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