• Stavros Papagianneas

Communicating Belgium



The second wave of coronavirus is at our doorstep, and many citizens are asking themselves if our societies are better prepared this time. With the daily infections on the rise, Belgium's National Security Council decided on 23 July to extend the obligations to wear masks and fill in a travel form for returning from vacation. Also, catering establishments should record the attendance of their guests.


One of the main obstacles in managing the outbreak in the country is communicating government measures effectively to the public. Belgium has a complicated state structure what makes things tricky.


The state structure is Daedalian, not only because there are two types of federated entities – Regions and Communities which each have different types of powers - but also because the successive institutional reforms have led to a complex relationship between the federated entities.


The country has six government - each with its parliament and, nine ministers of health. This is a recipe for trouble when you have to communicate in times of a global crisis. 


Belgian PM Sophie Wilmès has admitted that the government communication during the press conference after the (Corona) National Security Council on 24 April 2020 could be improved.  


"In terms of form it could be better", she said in the program "The seventh day" of national broadcaster VRT. The fact that the press conference only started after 10 pm is due to a "tradition" in Belgium, she said.


The press conference of the PM with a PowerPoint presentation of the National Security Council was not exactly a paradigm of effective crisis communication. The federal government was unable to create a professional structure in the chaos of the many task forces.


A month later - end of May - same story. The communication about the measures during the phase of Belgium’s exit plan becomes increasingly unclear. Which students can go back to school, and when? Which shops are open? Mayors have asked ministers to refrain from announcing news until everything is confirmed.


The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented challenge for communicators, as nobody can predict how long it will last and how hard it will affect the economy and public life. Local and regional governments have to make tough decisions and communicate them in a way that resonates with citizens.


In the fight against the outbreak, the population must respect government measures. A government cannot implement these measures through restrictions and law enforcement only. Motivating the citizens is paramount. Good communication is essential for doing this. That's exactly where things went wrong in Belgium.


Information was too technical with no motivational arguments or empathy. There was no differentiation of communication towards different target audiences.


In this crisis it is of utmost importance that the measures issued by the government are followed up by the large majority of the population. This must be done on a very large scale and in a private sphere. If people feel that the measures are unfair, illogical or exaggerated, they will not be followed.


ULB Prof. in Immunology and Pharmacotherapy, Michel Goldman has expressed concerns about the Belgian approach. We must review the way in which we inform the population, go beyond the figures and further explain the consequences of the contamination upsurge, he said, after the National Security Council decided on 23 July that catering establishments should record the attendance of their guests.


I have worked with Michel Goldman at the European Commission and he is right. There is not enough contact tracing for COVID-19 in Belgium and many citizens and businesses just don't respect the rules. Some citizens refuse to give their contact details and many give fictive names.


In Antwerp for example, we have seen hundreds Bart De Wevers (Mayor of Antwerp) checking in in the bars and restaurants of the city. Civic discipline is key in the battle against corona. If you don't have it, you lose the war.


This is not a joke. Therefore the role of the government is not only to inform but also to control and manage the implementation of the rules. And one of the most effective ways to do so is fining big all those ignoring anti-corona measures.


Bad communication stimulates the coronavirus and makes things worse. Good communication is crucial for health policy. There was a lack of coherence and transparency in the government's crisis management. The many experts who spoke out separately contributed to confusion and loss of confidence. This has stimulated the creation of conspiracy theories. There are more and more people who reject the use of face masks. Many citizens no longer believe what is being communicated.


Another remarkable issue in Belgium during this crisis is according to the NYT the failure of protecting the elderly. As the newspaper notes: "Runaway coronavirus infections, medical gear shortages and government inattention are woefully familiar stories in nursing homes around the globe. But Belgium’s response offers a gruesome twist: Paramedics and hospitals sometimes flatly denied care to elderly people, even as hospital beds sat unused."


Same message from Brussels based Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), a global NGO providing medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare.


According to the MSF report: "there was a real fear that hospitals would be overwhelmed, as had happened in Italy and Spain, and therefore Belgian authorities focused solely on preserving hospital capacity. As a result, nursing care homes were neglected. They suffered from a lack of protective equipment, material, staff and expertise to fight the pandemic. Consequently, care homes paid a high price: by the end of June, 6,200 care home residents had died of COVID-19, which is 64 % of all COVID-19 deaths in Belgium."


The pandemic has hijacked the circumstances of our lives. At the same time, Covid-19 has made human connection more important than ever. I strongly believe that we need more empathy and compassion on our planet. Taking care of the elderly is a cornerstone of our civilisation.



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© Copyright 2019 Stavros Papagianneas

Brussels Belgium | sp@stpcommunications.com | +32 2 880 37 65