Feels like 2020

With Coronavirus indicators continuing to rise, it came as a surprise to no-one that Belgium is going into lockdown again. This was announced yesterday and the new restrictions take effect on Monday.

The new and tightened rules all amount to reducing the numbers of contacts we have with each other, with aim of having a short, hard lockdown now in order to avoid longer lasting one later.

For us, the main impact is that schools are closed next week. Macsen has end-of-term exams, which are permitted but we will have to wait to hear from the school as to how these will be organised. As for William and Alexandre, we are also waiting to hear from their school whether any online learning will be organised or if they are going to have a three-week Easter break.

Non-essential journeys within Belgium are still allowed and the zoos remain open, so even with these new restrictions we’re not entirely trapped. Just as long as none of us tries to talk to anyone.

Great Minds

In the comments of yesterday’s post, I suggested (slightly flippantly) that if France and Germany didn’t want their AstraZeneca vaccines, they could be used to speed up the vaccination process in Belgium.

Great minds think alike.

Belgium has asked pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca for the surplus vaccine doses from the countries that have temporarily put the company’s jabs on hold over recent concerns about possible side effects.

Jabtastic!

On speaking too soon

While rambling yesterday about the Coronavirus, I suggested (not as directly as I thought I had) that the availability of vaccines provided a way out of this pandemic. They do, but there are still delays.

The biggest coronavirus vaccination centre in Belgium, Heysel, did not open its doors on Monday after the delay in deliveries of AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines resulted in hundreds of appointments being cancelled.

AstraZeneca announced last week that it would only be able to deliver 500,000 coronavirus vaccines to Belgium, 200,000 fewer than promised, and Moderna said it would be delivering just 94,800 doses this week, leaving centres with reduced supply.

Then again, this is why any plans we make are very provisional.

365 Days Later

It was on Monday 16th March 2020 that I turned up to work to find a company-wide email telling me that I should start working from home. The mail had been sent on the Sunday which is why I hadn’t seen it before I reached the office. It was surprising, though, just how many people had been looking at their email over the weekend and, consequently, had known to stay at home. The following day, Belgium formed a temporary government which promptly placed the country in lockdown.

That Monday was, for me, the moment that the Coronavirus became real. Obviously, I had been aware of it and had been following the news but, until this point, the crisis had not had any direct impact on me or those around me so it had all felt a bit abstract.

I have been intending to post something to mark the date for a few days, but when I came to write this I found that I really didn’t have much to say. There are several reasons for this, but a major one is that being stuck at home hasn’t really been too hard on me.

It helps of course that I am something of an introvert and am quite happy to see no-one but my immediate family for, well, for a year. Living in the middle of nowhere has also been surprisingly helpful as I have been able, throughout the pandemic, to find some very pleasant places to walk all of which are very close to home. This has extended to the kids as well and, even with various activities cancelled, local clubs and groups have managed to both organise online activities and provide relevant resources and suggestions.

Financially, we are among the 71% of Belgians that are doing fine. Luxuries are largely reduced to pizza and DVDs and, while I do miss meals out and trips to the cinema, the absence of these is not much of a hardship. And this sums up much of the lockdown period for me; there have been plenty of minor irritations, but nothing devastating.

I realise that we have been lucky, and that many people have had a far harder time of this pandemic than we have, and I am certainly looking forward to receiving the vaccine and finally seeing an end to the crisis. It’s going to be a while yet, though, with the Flemish Health Minister promising 11th July as the date by which everyone in Flanders having received their first jab. As long as the ordered vaccines all turn up on time. Being neither a front-line worker or in any risk group I imagine I will be close to the back of that particular queue so we’re not making any summer holiday commitments just yet.

I haven’t renewed my rail pass either. I don’t need it if I’m working from home and have seen no indication from my employer that they have any plan to reopen the office any time soon. I can’t say I’m at all unhappy about this; working from home has freed up a huge amount of time for me and it has become very apparent to all just how unnecessary a physical office actually is. Ideally, I would go into work for one or two days a week and stay at home for the rest. We shall have to see how things go.

It’s not over yet, but the end is in sight and we can start looking forward again to a post-pandemic world. Hang in there, wherever you are, and here’s looking forward to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Eased and extended

Since Belgium went into second lockdown at the end of October, I have been saying that I don’t expect the country to emerge this time around until 2021. Looking at what is being said, it’s quite clear that the government is very wary of a repeat of the summer where the country started to ease the restrictions and was hit by a massive spike in infections.

There was a review of the current measures on Friday, utterly unsurprisingly, the current lockdown measures have been extended until mid-January.

There is, however, some easing of the current measures with non-essential shops being allowed to open from Tuesday. Restrictions still apply and shoppers are expected to quickly pick up their non-essential essentials and leave. For us, this means that broken bootlaces can finally be replaced. Museums will also be allowed to re-open, and swimming pools, oddly enough. But not cinemas.

Hairdressers also remain closed. I have threatened to cut my own hair already, and am coming close to going through with it.

And, with Christmas fast approaching, the number of social contacts remains the same and absolutely will not change, according to Federal Health Minister, Frank Vandenbroucke:

The decision for Christmas period is final. We want to offer people clarity even if this isn’t pleasant. It is better to be certain where you are heading, and we absolutely wish to avoid giving people false promises.

We’ve already reconciled ourselves that we won’t be visiting elderly grandparents in either France or the UK this year, and I do see the sense of this. Disappointing as it is, you can’t negotiate with a virus and a seasonal lifting of restrictions is a bit silly, to say the least.

All of this does, of course, mean no Christmas film and no Wonder Woman this year.

And we’ll be having a quiet Christmas at home.

And I really need a haircut.

0.99

So here’s a bit of good news. While the COVID infection rates in Belgium are still frighteningly high, they are slowly staring to come down and the R number now stands at 0.99. This means that the epidemic in Belgium is finally starting to slow down.

According to the Covid-19 spokesperson Steven Van Gucht, who is also a virologist, it is possible that the second wave has passed its peak:

If these trends continue, Tuesday 27 October was the peak of Belgium’s second wave for the time being, according to Van Gucht.

This is all good news, and the number of hospital admissions has also fallen slightly. That said, intensive care cases have risen and we’re not out of the woods yet.

“It is clear that the efforts are starting to work, but the way down is still a very long one,” he said. “We still have to stick to the current regime for a long time to get into safe waters.”

There is still a long way to go and Belgium still has one of the highest infection rates in the EU, but it’s nice to see a slight glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

Not a lockdown

Last week Belgium’s federal government announced a new set of restrictions in the face of ever rising coronavirus numbers. This was followed by regional restrictions in Wallonia and Brussels. And now Flanders has finally caught up.

New restrictions coming into force on Friday including the closure of cinemas and all other cultural venues.

The biggest effect on us will a ban on all amateur sport for anyone over 12, which also applies to youth groups and other activities for the over twelves. This is going to be hard for us since our oldest boy is going to be severely restricted by this while the twins, aged ten, will be largely unaffected.

The worst part, though, is that there is currently no indication as to how long the restrictions will remain in place.

While the various politicians keep saying that they don’t want to implement another lockdown, it does feel very much as if we’re edging closer and closer to one without anyone being willing to admit it.

I have seen various virologists calling for a short (four week) lockdown now in order to avoid a never-ending semi-lockdown which is just going to exhaust, frustrate and confuse people. I have to admit that I find myself increasingly in agreement with this view.

Another lockdown wouldn’t be any fun, but it would give us all a bit of clarity and would, ultimately, be less draining than the endless tweaking of rules we are currently seeing.

Another lockdown has been mooted already. Belgium is currently the worst hit country in the EU. The government needs to bite the bullet and implement a consistent lockdown before it becomes too late.

Lockdown Looming

Even with restrictions being tightened, starting yesterday, things are going to get worse before they get better:

Belgium will not reach its peak number of coronavirus infections until at least a week, if not 10 days from now, with a difficult four weeks fighting the virus ahead, experts have warned.

The new measures include Belgium’s first national curfew since the war and, in Flanders, schools are moving to Code Orange.

This means more restrictions, a suspension of extra-curricula activities, staggered timings to keep classes separate from each other and an option for schools to introduce distance learning for some classes.

According to the newly appointed Government Commissioner for Covid-19, Pedro Faco, the situation is serious but not desperate. He also says that the government doesn’t want another lockdown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one is announced before Christmas.

For now, though, all we can do is hunker down and hope for the best.

Mad compromise of the moment

The Belgium National Security Council met on Thursday to come up with new measures to address the public concern surrounding the coronavirus. They have come up with a number of measures that, essentially, amount to cancelling weekends and, bizarrely:

All classes at school will be suspended, but schools will be asked to provide care, especially for parents who are unable to look after their children during school hours. The Prime Minister has called for children not to be taken care of by grandparents.

In other words, schools will remain both open and closed until the end of the month.

According to Politico, this is the result of disagreement between Flemish and French-speaking politicians:

Whereas French-speaking politicians wanted to close down all schools in Belgium, as is now the case in France, Flemish politicians were more reluctant to do so, fearing an economic shock. A compromise was found by suspending all classes but not closing all schools.

After the press conference, Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon stressed that schools are not shutting down completely. “Closing all schools would be a problem for people who work in the health sector or for parents whose children can only be cared for by grandparents. That is precisely the most vulnerable group. Parents who can’t find a solution for their children can still rely on schools.”

I am certainly sympathetic to the view that offloading kids onto grandparents — the most vulnerable group — for the best part of three weeks would be insane. But if schools are going to stay partly open, I don’t see the value in not keeping them fully open.

Then again, it probably shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that the country that gave us Magritte would also be the first country to invent Schrödinger’s School.