I have been conducting archival research in Belgium as a Fulbright Research Scholar and collaborating with colleagues at the Université Catholique de Louvain this semester, but the coronavirus pandemic has intervened and disrupted our plans.
Belgians had been following the news of the worsening situation in Italy during February and early March, observing European governments begin to take steps to contain the growing epidemic. Carnival celebrations went ahead across Belgium, even as Venice cancelled its Carnival celebrations and Italy imposed a lockdown in Lombardia and Veneto.
The Belgian government instituted aggressive containment measures against the coronavirus epidemic on Friday 13 March and life in Brussels altered quickly. The Archives Générales du Royaume closed early that afternoon, along with the KBR Bibliothèque Royale, and all other libraries. As a result, my archival research is on hold and I am working on writing projects at home while sheltering in place.
The US Department of State’s latest travel advisory called on all US citizens abroad to return to the United States or shelter in place. I have chosen to shelter in place here in Brussels because of the dangers of traveling, the chaotic US response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the restrictions on Europeans traveling to the US. Some of the other Fulbright scholars in Belgium has also decided to shelter in place here for similar reasons.
Belgium has now been under coronavirus containment measures for 17 days, with restaurants, bars, cinemas, businesses, schools, museums, archives, and cultural institutions all closed for at least another two weeks. Only essential government agencies, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, and take-away food stands remain open.
Photo credit: Le Soir
The grocery stores are fully stocked daily (except for Sundays), so flour, pasta, meat, fish, and some other products do tend to run out by the late afternoon, but then are restocked the next morning. Belgians and other Europeans seem to be doing lots of baking during this period of isolation. Grocery stores have had to change their food providers for some produce (from Italy and Spain, for example), due to travel and transport restrictions.
There are restrictions on how many people can enter grocery stores at a time, so there are lines outside sometimes. In the city center, there are multiple grocery stores and it is easy to shop during the day and avoid peak periods when grocery stores are busy. There are also lots of small food shops (bakeries, cheese shops, butcher’s shops, fish stands, organic veggie shops, etc.) still open. A grocery shopping expedition involves wearing medical gloves and then washing hands thoroughly after getting home and unpacking the groceries.
Le Soir is reporting the current number of coronavirus cases in Belgium as 12,775, but only around 12 percent of the cases are in Brussels. The rate of new cases has been fluctuating day by day, so it is hard to tell the trend. But, the containment measures seem to be slowing the spread of the virus. On the confinement measures in Belgium, see Le Soir.
European nations are definitely taking a huge economic hit with the containment measures, but many fewer people have been laid off thanks to social systems that provide job security. Unemployment benefits are also more robust in European nations than in the States. Of course, the economic situation varies enormously by sector and by nation.
Most European nations began implementing virus containment measures as the situation in Italy worsened. Italy, Spain, and Switzerland are the hardest hit in terms of per capita cases. Italy’s high death rate is almost certainly linked to elderly age of the overall Italian population and to the heavy concentration of cases in Lombardia. Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and other nations seem to be slowing the spread of the virus, at least so far, with much lower per capita cases. Politico.eu has a Coronavirus Tracker with European maps and numbers, updated each day.
The European Union’s response has been slow and continues to be fragmented, partly due to the continuing political crisis that Brexit created. As the capital of the European Commission and co-capital of the European Parliament, Brussels is especially concerned with the European response to the crisis. Le Soir reports on worries that the future of the European Union depends on its ability to manage the coronavirus pandemic.
However, this is nothing compared to the delays and mixed messages of the United States’ response to the pandemic. Some states and cities seem to have recognized the serious threat and began reacting early enough to make some difference. The federal government’s response has been slow, confused, and chaotic, and I am afraid that a lot of people are going to suffer as a result.
The new coronavirus cases are following the curve of Italy’s new cases. So, the cases are going to be very substantial in the States, even if the death rate is likely to be much lower than in Italy. Italy’s total confirmed coronavirus cases now represent 1,749 per million inhabitants. If the United States ends up with something similar, then that would be looking at 578,000+ confirmed cases. Again, that’s confirmed cases, not deaths. Nonetheless, there is clearly a great need to spread out the cases and not have them come all at once and overwhelm the hospitals.
For a good report in English on the desperate situation in Lombardia, see this New York Times piece from a couple of days ago.