The experts that the government uses in the fight against corona are working hard, without much support from the federal government. ‘I was often alone in the Wetstraat 16.’
Infectiologist Erika Vlieghe gave her heart last week in Knack about the way in which the experts who assist the government should function. ‘You work many hours, I’ve been working seven days a week for months now, without being paid for it, while your own work has to continue. And more and more I experience that as an expert you are the perfect target. ‘
Infectiologist Erika Vlieghe gave her heart last week in Knack about the way in which the experts who assist the government should function. ‘You work many hours, I’ve been working seven days a week for months now, without being paid for it, while your own work has to continue. And more and more I experience that as an expert you are the perfect target. ‘ Professor Vlieghe was chairman of the GEES, the expert group that advised the National Security Council, and so far – although she openly doubts its usefulness – is also a member of the controversial successor Celeval. She also has her regular work as a doctor and as a senior lecturer at the university. Barring last weekend’s strike of silence, Vlieghe is also almost permanently present in the media to interpret advice and measures and to analyze the evolution of the pandemic. All with unbridled effort and dedication, but even a workhorse like Vlieghe can hardly keep up, especially when politics sometimes lacks elementary decency. Vlieghe is certainly not alone with her complaints. As spokesperson for the National Crisis Center, physician and clinical biologist Emmanuel André was Steven Van Gucht’s French-speaking counterpart. He dropped out at the end of April, but remained active in the GEES while at the same time trying to get the testing-and-tracing policy off the ground. Eventually he returned to his laboratory in Leuven. There too he continues to deal with the corona crisis on a daily basis, but no longer directly employed by the federal government. ‘Making your expertise available to society is part of the social mission of academics’, says Emmanuel André. ‘But people like Erika, me and other official experts also have their own tasks, which are difficult to combine with what has been added in recent months. Moreover, the crisis has been going on for a long time and the amount of work to be done is gigantic. In addition, the Belgian state is spending millions of euros on consultants in this crisis. The experts who come to evaluate and criticize our work in the corona committee in the Chamber are also generously paid. Of course, we never asked to be paid for our work. But conversely, the Wilmès government has never asked us: how can we make sure you can keep all the balls in the air? ‘ Top expert and biostatistician Niel Hens, who was also part of the GEES and who provides a lot of work in the wings with his epidemiological models, also questions how things turned out. Obviously, none of us really care about making compensation, but the absence of any kind of compensation has become a symbol of a lack of respect for the efforts of recent months. At the GEES we were not even refunded travel costs. That is quite striking for the whole story. Well, Prime Minister Wilmès is someone who has always expressed her gratitude, but not all members of the government have dealt with it that way. And as experts, we have all done at least double shifts. Then it is still hallucinatory that there is hardly any framework in return. Figures, information about the various public institutions and their powers, networks with other experts, drawing up corona protocols for different sectors, we had to do it all ourselves and find out. And at regular intervals, politicians use us as an umbrella, to avoid having to admit mistakes or to take responsibility for policy measures. ‘ Also blatant is the organizational no man’s land in which the experts for the government had to deal with the corona crisis, without clear agreements about assignment or workload. ‘We have put the lack of clarity of our mandate and the difficult circumstances in which we have to work on the table with the government a number of times,’ says Niel Hens. ‘But little response has been given. In the summer we were almost all on the brink of burnout. ‘ On a human level, microbiologist Emmanuel André also testifies, it was very heavy. ‘For months I hardly saw my wife and children. I worked every day at 16 rue de la Loi, including Sundays and public holidays. And I was often all alone in my sixteen, not a cabinet employee in fields or roads in sight. Actually, I took over the work of the FPS Public Health almost entirely, that was just not normal. Don’t we have a state, a civil service, government services? Incidentally, I now work almost as much as when I was a member of the GEES. It was mainly the relationship with this government that made the situation untenable. As experts we have not received any support and are also constantly attacked in the press. ‘ At that point in the conversation, André has to deal with a threatening phone call on another line. He can laugh about it, but unfortunately for most experts this is daily fare. “And the more politicians portray us as panic mongers, the more people see that as a license to threaten and intimidate us.” André denounces’ the lack of professionalism among many prominent politicians, especially in the MR, which is extremely influenced by lobbies. But if things go wrong, the experts act as scapegoats. ‘ The tension between experts and politicians was there from the beginning, according to André, but last week, with the departure of epidemiologist Marius Gilbert (ULB) from advisory body Celeval, it reached ‘a breaking point’. The Wilmès government has replaced scientists in Celeval with lobbyists and people with a discourse halfway between populism and science. As a result, Celeval is no longer a scientific body. ‘ This, according to virologist Marc Van Ranst, does not mean that the role of scientists in tackling the corona crisis has been played out, quite the contrary. ‘Inside or outside Celeval, all experts from the very beginning are in permanent contact with each other via WhatsApp and are in complete agreement on most matters. As the epidemic picks up again, the input from the virologists will regain importance. And if the next government really wanted to appoint a Corona Commissioner: here you have de facto your Corona Commissioner. ‘ At the start of the corona crisis, Van Ranst predicted that over time the praises for the experts would turn into scorn and criticism. ‘I also experienced that when I was the flu commissioner in 2009. You will be in a position where you can take responsibility, but you are also a kind of life insurance policy for politicians, who will not hesitate to victimize you to save their lives. ‘
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