Why Belgium relaxed coronavirus measures as France tightens them

On Wednesday, Belgium and France both introduced new rules to curb the rising coronavirus figures, but while Belgium mostly relaxed previous measures, France announced additional restrictions.

Even though both countries are now coloured red on the coronavirus map of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), meaning over 120 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the last two weeks, both countries took a vastly different approach.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran announced that people in certain areas will have to limit their social contacts, and that bars and restaurants in over a dozen large cities will have to close at 10:00 PM, and even have to stay shut completely in the coastal city of Marseille.

In contrast, Belgium allowed its inhabitants to have close contact with more people again, relaxed face mask rules, shortened the mandatory quarantine period and lifted the limit on the number of guests allowed at organised events.

In France, the situation seems to be worse, with an incidence rate of almost 200 confirmed infections per 100,000 inhabitants and 6.2% of all tests coming back positive (compared to 140/100,000 and 4.1% in Belgium), according to official figures.

Additionally, while France’s population is more than five times bigger than Belgium’s, its number of hospitalisations is currently 10 times as high.

However, France’s previous measures were not as strict as Belgium’s, leading some to say the country is now just “catching up” to what already happened in Belgium.

In most French departments, private gatherings are not limited to 10 people like they are in Belgium, local events are not banned, and gatherings of up to 1,000 people are still allowed.

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On top of that, some of Belgium’s recently announced measures were not relaxed because the health situation now allowed it, but simply because they were not understood or respected, and had become counterproductive in the end, according to experts.

“The disadvantage in terms of loss of support” for the measures was becoming “greater than the benefit,” epidemiologist Marius Gilbert, former member of Belgian government’s evaluation committee Celeval, told RTBF.

By maintaining the rules that people found absurd, the risk was that “they might no longer follow the other very important and useful recommendations,” he said.

With these measures, Belgium’s government wants to include the population in the fight against the virus, and not just leave it to the politicians and the virologists.

“Everyone has to make their individual choice, and must decide in good conscience,” said Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès during the press conference on Wednesday. “But we ask you to follow the recommendations, as they are very important.”

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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