Beginning in 2015, the Belgian government destroyed the country's entire "strategic stock" of 63 million protective face-masks, because "room had to made" for housing refugees. With no masks available when the coronavirus pandemic spread to Belgium, the government announced that no masks were needed: "Wearing masks to protect yourself from the coronavirus makes little sense". Pictured: Police organize a line of customers outside a gardening store in Brussels, Belgium on April 18, 2020. (Photo by Eric Lalmand/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)
It is too soon to make a final assessment on the management of COVID-19 by the countries of the world, but one thing is sure: Belgium is in the middle of a great carnage.
It all began in 2015, when the government of Prime Minister Charles Michel (today's European Council president) decided to destroy Belgium's entire "strategic stock" of 63 million protective face-masks, including the precious FFP2 type -- 1,200 pallets carefully stored and guarded by the army in the Belgrade Barracks, in Namur. Because they were stored in "bad conditions" said Minister of Health Maggie De Block, who is still on the job today. "That is not quite right," said the main union of the Belgian army, "... the main reason was lack of space. In 2015, the government decided that the Red Cross would use some of the buildings to receive refugees. Room had to be made..." In 2015, Belgium and Europe were overwhelmed by migrants at the invitation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the laws of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights made it effectively impossible to reject them.
The entire strategic stock was thus incinerated, and never replaced -- another decision of De Block, which, given the regularity of epidemics and pandemics, amounts to a crime. "To govern is to foresee", said Emile de Girardin.
So, when the coronavirus pandemic spread to Belgium, this unfortunate country had almost no masks -- zero for the citizens, zero for the police, zero for the nursing homes, and almost zero for the hospitals.
The pandemic erupted much sooner in Italy than in Belgium. Northern Italy, with its strong economic links to China through the textile houses and fashion industry, was the main epicenter of the pandemic in Europe. On January 31, Italy barred flights from China -- a move unfortunately too late for Italy -- and by February 21, several Italian towns were already on total lockdown.
Many Belgians have Italian roots, especially in Southern Belgium (Wallonia), and many more love Italy. So, between February 22 and 23, tens of thousands of Belgians departed for Italy for the Carnival Break, despite the outbreak -- while the Belgian government stayed mute.
When these people returned from Italy, mainly through the two major Belgian airports-- Brussels South (Charleroi) and Brussels (Zaventem) -- they were not screened in any way. In fact, they had been screened on arrival in Italy, but not when they returned to Belgium. At the time, Minister of Health Maggie De Block said that checking people's body temperature is useless, and that closing the border did not make any sense: "A virus does not stop at borders." When Dr. Marc Wathelet tried to warn the minister of the risks, De Block called him, in a tweet now deleted, a "drama queen" . It seems the epidemic violently erupted in Belgium mainly because of the unscreened returnees from Italy.
At the beginning of March, the government of Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès -- from the same center-left Mouvement Réformateur party as her predecessor Charles Michel -- saw no problem with Belgians attending mass gatherings, such as the Salon Batibouw (real estate fair), the Foire du Livre (book fair), and of course, the International Women's Day rally on March 8. By March 8, in Italy, 366 people had already died of the virus.
When Wilmès decided finally to take action, in the form of directives dated March 23, it was mainly to forbid any initiative in the field of masks and medication by the private sector: the government had to take the issue into its own hands.
Unfortunately, these professional politicians and their "experts" have insufficient experience in the field of international commerce. The first batch of masks ordered by the Belgian government was never delivered; the masks in the second batch ordered were very efficient, but only for making coffee, and when a Belgian entrepreneur took action to order millions of masks to be delivered to the authorities, he was vilified as a "crook" -- with no evidence -- but, "Hey, this is an emergency, we don't have time for evidence!"
At the beginning of April, therefore, two months after the pandemic had spread to Europe, there were still almost no masks in Belgium, even for the medical professionals confronted daily by the risks, to say nothing of the average citizen.
There were no masks, so the government decided to announce that no masks were needed. This supreme culmination of the ineptitude of the Belgian government still can be found online on the personal website of Health Minister Maggie De Block: "Wearing masks to protect yourself from the coronavirus makes little sense".
Without masks, the other imperative to confront the virus is the tests -- even the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized that. Tests are pretty simple to develop and the first requirement of an efficient response to any pandemic. The medical capabilities of Belgium are huge -- hospitals, physicians, public and private laboratories, and enormous private chemical companies -- and the public spending in its health sector is one of the highest in the world. Thus, the Belgian government had the opportunity to make up for its criminal ineptitude with masks by testing.
Unfortunately, it did just the opposite. Instead, it awarded a de facto monopoly for these tests to the laboratory of a certain Marc Van Ranst at the Catholic University of Leuven. There is no conceivable reason for this decision, and the effect was exactly the same as for the masks: excluding the private sector and rationing out the tests, which therefore have been cruelly lacking since day one.
The decision is all the more surprising when one knows that Van Ranst is not only a physician but also active in politics. An avowed communist and Israel-hater, he once talked of a "Gazacaust" and was very proud of the word. That is the man who was crowned "Mr. Tests" for all of Belgium.
When private companies developed new methods of testing, the Belgian government immediately published a new ruling to forbid them completely throughout the country, on the pretext that they may not be 100% reliable.
No masks, no screening and almost no tests -- that has been Belgium's situation in the middle of the worst pandemic since the Spanish Influenza of 1918. It is a dramatic situation entirely due to the wretched decisions of the Belgian government. When Wilmès broke the de facto monopoly she had created -- allowing more tests by private companies such as GSK -- it was far too late.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of this sad story of criminal incompetence. The main blunder was still to come. Seeing the situation in Italy and Alsace (France), where some hospitals had been temporarily overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, the Belgian government took what is probably, in retrospect, its worst decision since 1945: people infected by the virus in nursing homes had to remain in nursing homes. Therefore there was no hospitalization for these poor old people.
Combined with the almost total absence of masks and tests, this directive had cataclysmic consequences -- deaths, deaths and more deaths. Belgium is now speaking of not only one but two epidemics: one in the general population and one in the nursing homes. Tragically, almost 50% of the coronavirus deaths in Belgium have taken place in nursing homes. Despite the often-heroic efforts of their staffs, the nursing homes of Belgium, in fact, are now deathtraps. People dying alone in their rooms are not even allowed to see their families one last time, to avoid infecting the rest the family -- another idea of the Belgian government that was affirmed, canceled, and then reaffirmed.
No masks, no tests and nursing homes as deathtraps: one now understands why Belgium is #1 in the world ranking of coronavirus deaths per capita -- ten times more than Germany.
This Belgian carnage is entirely due to the tragic incompetence of the Belgian governing "elites -- and was completely avoidable.
Drieu Godefridi, a classical-liberal Belgian author, is the founder of the l'Institut Hayek in Brussels. He has a PhD in Philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris and also heads investments in European companies.
 The ineffable Maggie De Block has announced that she would "recount" the deaths in the nursing homes, since some people were included in the statistics when only "suspected" of coronavirus. But many countries have included "suspected cases" in their statistics-- including the US.