At the beginning of February, as COVID-19 was spreading in the Hubei province in China, Belgium repatriated a few nationals living in the region. Once they landed, they were quarantined in specialised structures and isolated, as a few of them were tested positive to the virus.
Since then, the people showing symptoms of the illness grew steadily. The country began to quarantine all the people coming from abroad, especially those who travelled to Italy, where the coronavirus was spreading rapidly.
In March, as the number of people positive to COVID-19 rose, the government, led by the Interim Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès, announced that the National Security Council issued numerous measures to contain the pandemic. Belgium declared a lockdown for the entire country over the coronavirus crisis from 18th March until 5th April. Furthermore, the Belgian Parliament agreed to grant the Prime Minister special powers for the following six months to face the health crisis.
Belgians were asked to avoid as much as possible contact with people and also not to leave their homes unless it was strictly necessary, for instance, to do essential shopping, to go to the bank or the postal office. Citizens are allowed to go to work; however, if possible, teleworking is a recommended option.
Schools closed, and public gatherings were forbidden. Outdoor physical activities were recommended, in respect of the social distancing (1.5 metres). Groceries stores, pharmacies and night shops were allowed to stay open, whereas all the shops considered “non-essential”, such as bars and restaurants, had to close.
The public transport was allowed to run as long as it is possible to maintain social distancing. On the other hand, the government said it is not allowed to travel from city to city unless strictly necessary. Also, Belgium decided to close its borders temporarily for “non-essential travels”; however, transportation of goods, cross-border workers, health staff and Belgians returning from abroad were allowed to enter the country.
Furthermore, the government issued a website called info-coronavirus.be, where the citizens can find the answers to all the questions they might have regarding the coronavirus situation.
Even though the measures have been implemented and (mostly) respected, experts denoted that 13 days were not enough to eradicate the COVID-19. Following the specialists’ advice, the National Security Council decided to extend the lockdown two times; at first until 19th April, and then until 3rd May.
At the beginning of the health crisis, Belgium was able to test only severely ill patients in local triage centres. As the measures of containment partially relieved the national health service, the authorities declared that they are planning to test also people with mild coronavirus symptoms, reaching 25,000 tests per day.
The government arranged an economic strategy to support the economy in this period of crisis. It will deploy approximately EUR 60 billion to guarantee liquidity and to support the healthcare system, the companies, the self-employed and unemployed and to help all the sectors affected, and it will postpone the repayments to banks and insurers to September 2020.
Furthermore, the European Union confirmed its financial help with a special fund of EUR 37 million to face the healthcare emergency. Moreover, the European Central Bank introduced several economical packages to preserve the Belgian economy as well as that of the other European countries.
The government planned to lift the lockdown in 3 phases. The first one started on 4th May and continued until 11th May. During this period, a few companies and shops that produce fabric for face masks were allowed to reopen (if they could guarantee social distancing and adequate hygiene standards). However, social gatherings were still forbidden, and it was mandatory to use face masks on public transports and places where it was not possible to guarantee social distancing. The second phase starts as planned from 18th May: a few more activities are allowed to reopen (for instance museums), and marriage and funeral are allowed to take place with small groups attending. Moreover, there is a plan to reopen the primary and secondary schools carefully, but with wide safety measures in place. The third phase should begin on 8th June at the earliest; after evaluation, restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen. The government will consider the possibility to allow travels within the country and abroad. Public gatherings will not take place until 31st August.
Written by Luca Dilda, May 2020.