Mea culpa: “We underestimated COVID-19”

Belgian health minister Maggie De Block (Flemish liberal) has conceded that many people in Belgium underestimated coronavirus.  In a stunning admission she says “The virus turned out to be far more dangerous and far more deadly for certain age groups than initial information indicated”.

Ms De Block was speaking after VRT TV aired a documentary probing the failings of the first weeks of the corona crisis in Belgium.  The team that produced the documentary has come up with a slate of lessons that can be drawn from the emergency.

Never underestimate a virus: initially COVID-19 was compared to a heavy bout of flu.  It was likened to SARS that never spread to Belgium.  The Belgian health and science institute Sciensano followed the advice of the World Health Organisation. In January and February the WHO was making reassuring noises. Ms De Block says that later they admitted the virus had surprised them.

“I believe scientists, the WHO, the European Commission and politicians including myself underestimated it.”

The crisis also highlighted the need to pay due attention to travellers returning for risk areas. Skiers returning from northern Italy after the half-term break were told the risk of being infected was infinitesimal. Microbiologist Herman Goossens now concedes: “I underestimated the virus at that point in time, but on the basis of the information I possessed I still believe I drew the right conclusion.”

Virologist Marc Van Ranst too didn’t see the need for isolating returning holidaymakers: “There were no official cases in the Italian ski resorts at that time.”

Criteria people initially had to meet in order to qualify for a corona test now appear too strict.  Some people struggled to get a test. A major lesson must be not to make testing criteria too strict.

Strategic reserves of equipment and drugs are also needed.  Not everybody could be tested because of a lack of chemicals. Hospitals too faced drug shortages. There was also a shortage of masks and other protective equipment.  Belgium possessed a large stock as recently as 2017 but when these expired they were destroyed and not renewed.

The crisis has also shown the importance of contact tracing.  Contact tracing after the half-term break in February was difficult.  Belgium only had twenty tracers, who had to contact an awful lot of people. Today capacity has been increased.  There are 450 tracers – a 22-fold increase.

Virologist Prof Marc Van Ranst: “We’ve never invested much in preventative health care and contact tracing in this country.  I believe that was wrong, but apparently you need a big epidemic before you have all your ducks in a row”.  

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