Omicron chaos and incompetence of Belgian bourgeoisie

Big demonstrations broke out in Brussels in November and December. In the former, 35,000 protested efforts by the government to blame the people for the course of the pandemic crisis, and impose stricter control measures. Sentiments of disgust, and distrust towards the establishment, underpin these protests, following intermittent lockdowns and a host of broken promises by the government, combined with the double standards of the measures taken thus far. All of this has caused disorientation, perplexity and anger that has pushed people onto the streets. Meanwhile, the threat to fire unvaccinated staff in healthcare and other sectors has led to strike action being called by the unions – the first time that the workers' organisations have broken with "national unity" since the pandemic began.

The large demonstrations that we've witnessed in Brussels have been marked by confusion, involving a mix of anti-vaxxers, adherents to the most absurd conspiracy theories, and extreme right-wing groups, together with ordinary families, exhausted health workers, frustrated young people and even some left-wing groups. The deep-seated feeling expressed during that demonstration was a colossal ‘f*** you’, directed against the establishment.

These demonstrations, and the mood behind them, are symptomatic of a widening abyss between a growing layer of the population and the establishment. The violent clashes at the end of the demonstrations, although mostly instigated by extreme right-wing elements, have set the government and the police force on edge. The public agency OCAM (established to monitor the risk of terrorist attacks) was put in charge of ‘analysing the threat’, and issued an alarming analysis. It described an “impressive counter-movement” in Belgian society against the health measures, and a political climate that is “inflamed and polarised”.

Brussels protest Image fair useThe politically confused demonstrations against new COVID measures nevertheless express a mood of deep frustration with the establishment / Image: fair use

Belgium had the dubious honour of being the first country to detect the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on European soil, on 26 November. According to the Belgian public broadcaster RTBF, the patient was a young woman who had been in Egypt and was showing symptoms for 11 days. South African doctors officially warned about the new variant eight days prior. In the weeks leading up to this development, the government announced that the number of infections was very high, meaning more measures had to be taken.

More than 27,400 people have died of the coronavirus in Belgium since the beginning of the pandemic. The government has been looking with interest at the measures imposed by Austria. It is particularly eager to impose such measures in the Brussels region, where the vaccination rate remains relatively low compared to the rest of the country.

But of course, the government has not made any serious acknowledgement of its continuous blunders since the beginning of the pandemic, including the destruction of a massive stock of masks by the former liberal prime minister, or the attempt to procure masks from what transpired to be a scam artist.

Belgians were told that, after the vaccination campaign, and thanks to the measures put in place after the summer, things would improve. As the Federal Minister of Health said: “We will enter the kingdom of freedom”. But instead, Belgians have ended up in the realm of broken promises, and a further round of pandemic misery.

New government measures

In the last couple of weeks, the population has lived through a series of announcements and counter announcements after Omicron was declared a variant of concern by the WHO.

First, there was the reintroduction of ‘bubbles’ in schools, and the shutting down of bars and nightclubs after 11pm - despite pressure from the club and disco owners, and Flemish business organisations - as well as mandatory remote working (covering 80 percent of working time). Then a week later, masks were made mandatory for school children above 6-years-old, first time since the beginning of the pandemic, as well as cutting short the school year and reducing private events to minimum levels.

The government is also considering compulsory vaccination and a lockdown for unvaccinated individuals like in Austria and Germany. But the Belgian government is a seven-party coalition including liberals, greens, social democrats and Christian Democrats, both from the Flemish and Francophone sides. Instability is inherent in this arrangement, and any unpopular measure could kick start a mass movement from below that could aggravate the multiple crises in the government.

Until now, the pandemic was a kind of cement that kept the shaky coalition together. It is now turning into its opposite, and could even lead to the government’s downfall. No doubt members of the government are keenly aware of this.

Broken promises

The recent escalation was preceded by gross mismanagement that has severely impacted Belgium’s health service, and its capacity to cope with the pandemic.

On 8 November, the Flemish Agency for Care and Health announced it would take on additional staff in response to pleas from general practitioners that they were being overburdened by the failing contact tracing system. The latest increase in cases is causing the entire healthcare system to struggle. Staffing shortages have already seen the closure of 158 of Belgium’s 2000 ICU beds, even before the new wave. And now the situation is getting worse.

The general practitioner’s association, Domus Medica, was demanding at the beginning of November that contact tracing must be improved, and that the public information infrastructure for coronavirus measures needed to be bolstered, as they were struggling to handle the influx of questions about coronavirus tests and high-risk contacts.

“For a few weeks now, with the fourth wave increasing, we have been overwhelmed by the speed of it all,” Stefan Teughels of the Domus Medica GP Association told VRT News, noting that care for non-COVID patients is in jeopardy. Teughels said that several GP surgeries were unable to answer all their calls this weekend. “It was total chaos... As a result, people had to go to the emergency departments, and then it started all over again.”

In response to these complaints, the Agency for Care and Health announced that, in the coming month, 336 full-time employees will be added to handle contact tracing, with a total additional deployment of 558 new staff members. This is still woefully insufficient, as the ruling class’ support for Belgium’s public health service has been since the beginning of the pandemic.

Nearly two years on from the beginning of the pandemic, Belgium is conducting 100,000 tests a day on average, with a maximum capacity of 125,000, for a population of 11.6 million, 76 percent of whom are fully vaccinated. The lack of a centralised planned and public ownership of the healthcare system is becoming a burden in the fight against the pandemic. The Belgian health system is a patchwork of private, non-for-profit and publicly funded hospitals and clinics subsidised by the state budget, managed through a mutual system, very often linked to the trade unions but also to the church or private business. There is clearly no business logic in having a massive, unused tracing capacity under a for-profit system. Therefore, as it looked like Belgium was getting the pandemic under control, tracing and testing facilities are being closed down.

This has made it increasingly difficult to get a timely appointment for a test, undermining the whole test and trace system, meaning people could be unknowingly spreading the virus for days. In Wallonia, the labs cannot turn around PCR test results within the 24 hours as they used to, due to their increased caseloads of tests.

One of the issues behind this bottleneck is the lack of personnel. During the first months of the pandemic, money was invested in training students and newly qualified medics coming out of nursing and medical schools. But after a few months, these people have all moved on to better employment in the sector, and replacements are scarce. There is a massive shortage of available hands due to a decade-long campaign of cuts in the sector, to increase profit of the private labs and providers. They are not the institutions that will invest or increase wages, leading to shortages. This is a massive problem that has been exposed by the new variant.

There are over 3,000 COVID-19 patients in Belgian hospitals, which includes over 600 in intensive care beds. Compared to, for instance, Scotland (which has roughly 50 percent of the Belgian population) which had 45 people in intensive care as of 5 November and a total of around 600 COVID patients, these figures are appalling.

Antigens tests are not given for free but sold at €8 euros apiece, except for the unemployed, in which case they cost €1. This means that, for a normal working family of four people, assuming everyone intends to test twice a week, as per government recommendations, this adds €250 to families’ monthly budgets, on top of the masks (which are now mandatory at schools for children over six) and hand sanitising gel. There is a growing sense that the cost of the pandemic is being increasingly piled onto the shoulders of ordinary working people.

The workers’ movement takes a stand

For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, the trade unions, particularly those in the public sector, are deviating from the line of national unity, the echoing chorus of “we are all in this together”, coming from all the parties in government. Mandatory vaccination, and the sanctions for refusal (which from 1 April will include dismissal for health workers), have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The unions treat this policy as a real ‘declaration of war’. The announcement of sanctions against unvaccinated staff acted as a catalyst for the expression of a more general malaise in the hospitals. The unions reacting against the mandatory vaccination are exclusively from the French-speaking part of the country (Brussels and Wallonia), where some 15 percent of medical staff is not vaccinated. The application of this policy would deprive the health sector of tens of thousands of workers, and lead to the closure of whole wards. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of ICU beds has already been reduced by more than 10 percent, due to workers falling ill or leaving the job.

On Saturday 4 December, firefighters (considered ‘health workers’, as emergency responders) protested mandatory vaccination. On Tuesday 7 December, all health-related trade unions protested the decision of the government. Hospital and nursing home workers went on strike and demonstrated together with firefighters and domestic care staff in the streets of Brussels. It was quite a remarkable demonstration of 4-5,000 health workers, bringing together vaccinated and non-vaccinated staff in a strong gesture of defiance. It is difficult to see how, in the face of such a groundswell of opposition, the proposed measure will be put into practice.

In a statement, the unions declared:

“Health care institutions are already suffering greatly due to staff shortages and fatigue. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the trade unions have supported all health measures that can reduce the harmful effects of the virus: vaccination is one of them. Our main criticism is that the professional ban will further aggravate the already existing problems of shortages and work overload.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the leaders of the trade union movement have been permeated by the general mood of ‘national unity’ coming from the political establishment. In recent weeks, we have seen the first serious movements within the trade unions against this mood. This has been a result of mobilisation outside the control of the bureaucracy, with rank-and-file movement Santé en Lutte (“Health Struggle”) putting pressure on the leadership to break ranks with the government and the bourgeois.

These mobilisations are a first good step, but the trade union leadership must put forward a realistic programme to the streets. They also need a programme to oppose the artificial divisions introduced by the governments and nationalist parties between vaccinated and unvaccinated, disciplined Flemish and undisciplined Francophone workers. Class unity, instead of ‘national unity’, is the answer to the divisive policies of the government.

We demand the setting up of free, rapid testing facilities in workplaces and schools for mass screening, and the closing down of any place where an outbreak occurs, with guaranteed pay for all workers.

The wider workers’ movement (in the unions, left parties, mutual aid groups, public hospitals and medical centres) should also take the initiative to upgrade the vaccination campaign in the neighbourhoods and the workplaces, with open question and answers sessions, and provision of scientific information about the pandemic, combined with an unapologetic criticism of the official state and government-sponsored campaign. Only in this way can prejudices, unscientific ideas, doubts and mistrust be overcome successfully.

The workers’ movement should also support a worldwide campaign against profiteering from the pandemic, and demand that vaccines and treatments be made freely accessible to everyone throughout the world, particularly in those poor countries where the vast majority have yet to have a single dose. Vaccine nationalism by the imperialist countries lies behind the emergence of Omicron to begin with. These demands should be linked with the need to nationalise the Big Pharma industry, coinciding with a transparent explanation of how capitalists are profiting from this pandemic.

As long as the economy and political power are in the hands of a minority who only care about profit, we cannot guarantee that adequate measures will be taken to fight the pandemic.

Let's fight for the nationalisation of the pharmaceutical industry, and the democratic control by the working class of the entire health sector. There must be no room for private profiteering in health care, which has been the main culprit behind the perpetuation of this seemingly endless pandemic.

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