On March 17, 2020, Sophie Wilmès, at the head of an emergency government, announced a total lockdown of the population linked to the circulation of Covid-19 in Belgium. Effective the next day until April 5, the confinement would turn our lives upside down. A historic moment tinged with surrealism that seems far away today.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the first confinement, this Wednesday took place the very first international day of awareness of Covid long, a pathology which affects the daily lives of patients. As if to remind, in general indifference, that the virus continues to rage. Last year, each epidemic wave led to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths with a rate of serious forms which was certainly very reduced thanks to vaccination and hybrid immunity, but not zero.
If the virus is not eliminated let alone eradicated from the planet, it may not be for many years, experts agree that there is a need for continued efforts to reduce the burden of Covid in the population, to reduce the risks of long Covid, and to limit mortality.
“We could have done otherwise, especially with more anticipation”
If the time is no longer for the state of emergency which justified the compulsory wearing of a mask until recently, were the drastic measures taken three years ago disproportionate?
“It is an approach that is understandable because we did not know much about the virus at the time, estimates infectious disease specialist Yves Van Laethem, who is no longer overwhelmed by calls from journalists. When we understood the impact on our health, in particular by seeing Italian hospitals pile up the dead, I think we did well to close all the hatches. Precautionary measures had to be taken without knowing the intensity of the wave. At that time, a lockdown made sense, especially for countries with high population density. For those who have followed, we can discuss it again. There was surely a way to do otherwise, especially with more anticipation”.
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”Our awareness was incomplete and too late”
And alongside the dramatic images of overwhelmed care units in Italy and elsewhere in the world, there are the facts. And if they don’t cheat. “What was disturbing is that for a new virus, the mortality rate observed at the start was very high (around 10%), remembers virologist Steven Van Gucht. This was new and it is an element that has proven to be worrying over the infections. In addition, the profile of patients at the hospital was varied, it was not just the elderly. That’s when I thought it was different from the flu. I also remember that the first lockdown was decided in three days. When I see the figures for the first wave (10,000 deaths in a few weeks), I tell myself that it was necessary”.
From the destruction of masks to the “grippette”, Maggie De Block (Open Vld), minister in two governments and deputy in four legislatures, found herself under fire from critics. “Another drama queen!”. These words, Maggie De Block, Flemish Minister of Health of the government at the time, drags them like a ball. The liberal wrote them on February 28 on Twitter to discredit the experts who were trying to alert the government to the risk of hospital overflow, expected with the Covid.
“Our awareness has clearly been lacking and much too lateive, deplores the infectiologist. Political awareness was too soft at the start, they did not realize the intensity of the risk. When we realized the gravity of the situation, the enemy was already in the corridors. Generally, we have been lagging behind the virus for too long. It must be said that many scientists, including me, did not think it would go that far, we were overwhelmed by the size of the tsunami”.
“We lacked common sense and clarity in our communication”
For Van Gucht, the main shortcoming revolves around the lack of preparation. “We weren’t prepared for such a pandemic, summarizes Van Gucht. Our care and virus monitoring structures were underfunded, we did not have enough hygiene inspectors or prevention systems. We could not organize large-scale tracing, there was a severe lack of caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes and the first line was not well enough trained. Subsequently, we failed to be consistent in our measurements, and this is still the case today. It was not necessary to soften too much and then strengthen the guard at the slightest rebound, we lacked clarity and common sense in communication”.
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If the wearing of a mouth mask is still compulsory today with certain healthcare providers and in certain health institutions, this protection will have taken time to achieve unanimity. “Initially, there was no scientific recommendation, even from the WHO, poursuit Van Laethem. However, if it had been introduced much earlier, the successive confinements would have been less intense. The problem is that at the time, nothing made it possible to set it up as a dogma. Current studies show that it is effective but that this measure alone is not enough. Subsequently, we stammered with the obligation to wear a mask, as in all other countries and overall, we lacked foresight”.
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A few months after the appearance of the virus, the vaccine also came to relieve hospitals and lighten the daily lives of the population. Covid-19 vaccines have even saved 19.8 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). An estimate which also overlaps with statements made by other sources on the subject. However, while vaccines have saved lives, they do not reduce the circulation of the virus, according to the majority of experts. This is why we must continue to invest in new vaccines and in remedies that are easier to administer, such as with a nasal spray.
“With the Alpha wave in England then Delta in India, we realized that the vaccinated populations were much less present in intensive care, just as the mortality rate was lower, he recalls. This is a factor that demonstrates its importance. Moreover, if you are vaccinated today, Sciensano statistics show that there is an 80% gain in protection against serious forms of the disease. This is why it remains strongly recommended for the elderly and people at risk, despite the statements of certain anti-vaccine currents”.