“The corona rules? I don’t respect that ”, a woman laughs with an espresso in front of her on the terrace of café Barvis on Sint-Gillis voorplein. “Illness is part of life, you shouldn’t want to stop that. You just have to enjoy. ” The woman with the black curls does not want to give her name, just like many others on the street in the Brussels municipality of Saint-Gilles. A journalist? About corona? “No thanks, we have been frightened enough,” say two older men on a terrace down the road.
Face masks have been mandatory in the busiest streets of the municipality for a week. The vast majority adhere to it. And on the terraces, where it was still packed shortly after the lockdown was reversed and each other’s kisses seemed to return to normal, the crowds seem to have subsided this Tuesday afternoon. But the figures leave no room for misunderstanding: after a long decline, the corona virus is also back here.
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Between 25 and 31 July, an average of 517 new corona infections were diagnosed per day in Belgium. 60 percent more than a week earlier. Last week Antwerp was by far the largest source of fire, but the rest of the country has now started catching up. The situation in the capital is particularly worrying. Fifteen of the nineteen Brussels municipalities have exceeded the alarm threshold of twenty daily infections per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the latest figures. At the head of Saint-Gilles. Where there were about 52 infections per 100,000 inhabitants diagnosed there on Monday, that number had already risen to 64 on Tuesday.
At the end of June, Belgium implemented a final series of relaxation of the corona measures. Since then, the virus has started to ‘nest and spread’ under the skin again, says Inge Neven of the Brussels Health Inspectorate. The fact that more people go on holiday – and come back from it – also plays a role. But there is another striking trend in the figures: “We see clusters emerge throughout Brussels in places where people live together concentrated.” Saint-Gilles is no exception. With a population density of 19,659 people per square kilometer, it is one of the most densely populated municipalities in the Brussels region, and its income is below the national average. 21 percent are unemployed.
It is a recognizable trend in what is already being called the second wave, explains Brecht Devleesschauwer, epidemiologist at Sciensano. While the virus was more widespread among the middle class during the first wave because it came from abroad, now neighborhoods with a high population density, where many people have a lower income and a migrant background, are hit hard.
Smaller houses, busier streets
“What exactly is going on needs to be studied further, but we suspect that the population density in particular is a driving factor. After all, the virus needs physical contact, ”says Devleesschauwer. Households in these areas are often larger, while houses are smaller. It is busier on the street, and residents encounter each other more often in the large apartment blocks. “Another hypothesis is that people with a low income have a harder time working from home, and that they are also at an increased risk of infection.”
A completely different theory is on the table with GP Kassem Bouhachem, he says in his office, which has been established in the municipality since 2000. Bouhachem thinks the cause of the current flare-up is mainly due to the government. Now he wears safety goggles, a mask and blue gloves. “But for months we had too little or no protection material. And the same with tests. We have only been able to test people for about a month. ”
The criticism of the government’s approach is more frequent. It contact tracingsystem to detect infected people and their contacts is still not working properly. The results of tests were delayed due to a shortage of test locations. And until recently, it was mandatory for Belgians to go to the doctor for a referral before a test could be taken. In Brussels, however, 30 percent of the inhabitants do not have a doctor. “I took the test from a number of people who came by and who was not registered with me and paid the costs for it myself,” says Bouhachem.
“A referral is no longer necessary,” said Inge Neven of the Brussels Health Inspectorate. “And we also increased the test capacity again.” Last week, the National Security Council tightened up the Belgian corona measures. And a curfew was set in Antwerp last week for the first time since World War II. Whether such drastic measures are to be expected in Brussels, the responsible authorities are not yet saying.
For many businesses in Saint-Gilles, new measures could be the death blow. 40-year-old Fatima Takkal, who runs sandwich shop TKL Lunch with her brother, sees it gloomily, she says for her case. “We haven’t had a salary in a while, but at least we could still pay our bills. Now it is calmer again, and we and everything around us are really on the verge of bankruptcy.
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next on August 5, 2020