Corona crisis in Belgium: Prime Minister looks back

The prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, looks back today on the development of the crisis over which she presided.

Speaking to the French-speaking public broadcaster RTBF, she admitted she would have regrets about the way things were handled, but in words that echo the words of the prayer of St Augustine for purity and chastity: “But not yet”.

The PM this morning chairs a meeting of the consultative committee of Belgian governments on the worrying upward trend of new corona cases. She then goes from that to a difficult EU summit on a post-crisis relaunch. The interview, however, was taped earlier.

To begin with, she described the Carnival holiday period, when the pandemic was at Belgium’s gates – a situation she describes as “potentially problematic”.

“I was in contact with political representatives of the regions because we knew that we were going to have to work together when things started to speed up. For example, we had to manage the start of the new school term. We were not yet at the peak of the crisis”.

Then came the lockdown, first announced on 13 March, with the first closures – bars and restaurants – to take place at midnight on that Friday. That coincided with the decision to have the various government levels work hand in hand.

“When you are in the middle of a storm, you do not reason in the same way as when you come through it. We are familiar with Belgium at an institutional level, but we quickly understood that we had to work together.”

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That led to the decision on regular meetings of the national security council, involving the main representatives – ministers-president and health ministers, principally – from the regions, and those from the federal government, chaired by the PM, and attended by experts from the medical world and anyone else the council members thought necessary.

“Everyone got on board the ship, which was difficult to manoeuvre because of the strong wind, huge waves and a course to hold to.”

The interview then passes on to the thorny issue of the care homes, where the situation has been described by two separate reports – one by the federal ombudsman and a first-hand report by Doctors Without Borders – in the most lamentable terms.

The care home sector was not sacrificed, as Doctors Without Borders described it, but the time for drawing conclusions, once again, is not yet, Wilmès said.

“We will have to carry out a serene analysis to see where were the strengths and weaknesses. In this human drama, you have to take a distance that avoids drawing hasty conclusions, even if you have to draw them at some point. And the population also needs to recover from this painful episode.”

– On prioritising the economy above public safety: “Anyone who sincerely believes that we set out to revive the economy by opening certain businesses on a limited scale, still has some things to learn. Today, we are in almost total deconfinement, and it is clear that the economy is struggling to restart.”

– On the complaints of hospital workers and the guard of dishonour that greeted her at the Saint-Pierre hospital in Brussels on 16 May: “Many of my contacts told me that it was harsh and not deserved. But personally I did not find it harsh, because I went to the hospitals to discuss with the staff. And when we make ourselves available to listen and to discuss, it is not to hear what we want to hear.”

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Her response was to gather together representatives of those who had organised the demonstration.

“We had a very interesting discussion and I understood their anger and their feeling of abandonment in a major crisis. I understand that it was not against Sophie Wilmès, but against the situation. When you are Prime Minister you accept your responsibilities.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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