Of course there was also criticism in the reporting
The editors had to explain many measures, but there was certainly also a critical attitude. This often had to do with the government, which was not always equally efficient. The inadequate communication, the slow-moving contact tracing, just to name two examples. I also get reactions that policymakers and virologists were approached too critically. But some citizens called it “scratching the surface”. That is said a lot, because journalism has to scrutinize government action. But there is indeed more.
Good criticism doesn’t forget the big picture
In April I already asked in “The seventh day” that there would be an evaluation of the policy of the first months of the crisis. That is what happened with the excellent “Pano” report “Hotel corona”. Also the article series about Early Warners I have appreciated. There were indeed people who had foreseen the crisis coming earlier. At the same time, I also criticized the editors because at the time of the many easing, I believe that too little was asked whether it was safe to implement all those easing.
So what’s the big picture now?
Today, the big picture is that we’ve had to reverse some of those easing. The comfortable, weekly changing bubble of 15 had to be shrunk back to five of the same people for weeks. You cannot call this forward-backward policy a success and eats away the support for the measures. The obvious question is whether things have not been relaxed too quickly, but above all: what can we learn from this for the future?
The Netherlands and Sweden, but also Australia
My mailbox often refers to the Netherlands and Sweden as example countries. The policy is indeed sometimes more lenient, but you don’t just go to a rock festival. It is striking that my mailbox hardly ever refers to countries that are stricter. Take the Melbourne metropolitan area in Australia. The six million inhabitants of that area are imposed a curfew that starts at 8 pm. Good criticism is not only based on the nice example but also the less pleasant one. But it is certainly allowed to refer to abroad. It is up to virologists and policymakers to explain why they believe Belgian policy is better and to convince the viewer, listener and reader of this.
The painless policy
But many people who ask for more “criticism” in my mailbox, actually want to hear that a painless containment of the corona virus is possible. The inspiration for this is noticeably more often a certain mood-making and sometimes also some disinformation circulating on social media. Strangely enough, I get more echoes of this at the moment than at the peak of the crisis, when the measures were nevertheless much stricter. A recurring idea, for example, is that we simply have to accept a few more deaths to give the freedoms and the economy new opportunities. Some more “mortality” for less economic damage.
Accepting “mortality” to provide “oxygen” to the economy
To begin with, it is strange that deaths suddenly become abstract “mortality” as long as economic interests are at stake. Dead are dead, they are always someone’s father, mother, brother, sister or friend. A death that could have been avoided is always a tragedy. It is normal for journalism to assume that policy wants to save as many human lives as possible and questions policy on that point as well.
There is no masterly twist on the thermostat
But most of all, the whole frame of the reasoning “accepting a certain mortality to save the economy” is not yet really addressed. It assumes that we are able to accept a few dozen (hundreds?) Extra deaths to give our economy more space. So that we know how – so to speak – with a masterly twist of the thermostat, we can turn the measures down a notch, just enough to cause a small but not a major increase in the number of deaths while reviving the economy. The epidemic on a pilot light, as it were.
If only we knew where it is: the pilot flame setting
Sacrificing people for the economy remains ethically difficult, but we could well start the discussion if we knew how. The truth is, we still don’t know or master that masterly twist on the thermostat. We look for it. Hopefully we will find him soon, but the first attempts to do so got a little messed up, resulting in a new tightening of policy. This virus is not making deals for now: a little more of this in exchange for a little more of that. We are far from ready to carefully weigh up interests. We are still in the spasmodic phase of avoiding a major, expontential outbreak.
The fact that this seems to be successful in these summer months is not an argument for not taking any measures. Our relationship with the virus is still one of strangling or being strangled. Anyone who wants to criticize policy should not give the impression that we would know that painless thermostat setting, if only the virologists or the policymakers wanted to. Unfortunately that is not the case.
Virologists in the crosshairs
Of course, if some people in the public get tired of the measures, then, to some extent, also applies to the messengers of those measures: the virologists and epidemiologists who pushed for the recent measures. Some viewers think that the epidemiologists are in the studio too often. In that respect, the VRT is no different from other media and there is also a very simple logic for it. The problem is an epidemic, so you ask people who know about it. If you have a leak in the water pipe, ask a plumber, not a baker.
Virologists are well aware that support for measures is very important. It can help that they also dare to be vulnerable and say clearly what they do not know. They still know little about the possible long-term consequences of COVID-19 and above all: they do not yet know where the pilot light position is.
The criticism I receive in my mailbox is based on two other thoughts that people apparently would like to hear from journalists: “The victims are a bit older, aren’t they?” and “Many people die every year from the flu”. I don’t think editors should go along with that.
Corona threatens all ages
Most victims are indeed over 65, but there have also been hundreds of victims under 65. There are also younger people with lung damage. Incidentally, recovery from COVID-19 is by no means always easy and science is discovering the possible long-term consequences only slowly. The disease remains very drastic for many people. It is important that the media continue to explain why it is not an option to just let corona run its course, as Knack did this week. Even if we are now more successful in protecting the elderly and, for example, residential care centers, COVID-19 is still a problem for many people.
Corona is not the flu
Some people would like to hear from the editorial team that COVID-19 is just a more dangerous type of flu. This comparison is mainly made in the hope that it will lead to a painless policy. Let me sum up why that comparison really does not hold.
- Indeed, more people have died from COVID-19 in Belgium than from any flu epidemic this century.
- Those deaths have occurred despite very far-reaching measures. It is scientific nonsense to compare that with flu epidemics for which we take much less measures. We know that the corona virus can spread rapidly and exponentially. The real point of reference is the deaths that would occur if we did not take action. Everything indicates that that number could be many times higher.
- We know flu. COVID-19 is far from being.
- With flu we can protect the vulnerable part of the population with a vaccine, with COVID-19 we cannot.
- Flu disappears on its own in the summer. Corona clearly not.
It is important that the media continue to explain this. Criticism of the policy is allowed and must. But corona is not the flu.
Be critical of the experts
Epidemiologists and virologists are neither saints nor know-it-all. And there has also been criticism, for example in “Pano: Hotel corona”.
Last week, epidemiologist Pierre Van Damme was confronted in “Het Journaal” with statements by a French-speaking colleague who found the measures in Antwerp clearly exaggerated. That can happen more often.
Also invite other experts
Now other experts have certainly also spoken. Recently, for example, psychologist Koen Lowet was still in the studio. I would advise the editors to do that more often. But it is of course not the case that a completely different policy would be possible if only the media were to invite other experts. Behind the demand for other experts (economists, psychologists) is a demand for policy based on other interests. And that is allowed. So invite. But what the editors cannot do is confirm the image that we are already so far that we can switch the measures on and off in a risk-free and subtle way.
Is it really necessary?
Nevertheless, it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether such a curfew was not excessive, if it appears on hold can be put before the heat wave. There may also be critical questions about absurd situations such as the mouth mask should during a lonely walk. Should it really be forbidden to buy a bed or curtains with your wife? When people get tired, it is all the more important that the editors ask these questions in peace. And that may be a little more. But here the big picture is more important.
What criticism must then be made?
I read that virologists and epidemiologists prefer to keep the number of infections very low. Zero if possible. This means that the measures must be maintained for a long time. But I have not heard from politicians whether they agree.
And does a Belgian policy meanwhile make sense if the borders remain open at the same time? How do we monitor people who simply enter our country by car?
If the measures are going to take a very long time, what are we doing in the meantime for small businesses, for the catering industry, for the events sector?
What is the long-term perspective?
It is precisely the lack of a clear long-term perspective that makes people sensitive to messages that offer an alternative but non-existent reality. Critics in the public forum should also be careful not to unknowingly give a false impression about our relationship with the virus. But we have a hard time with long-term prospects in this country where even forming a federal government is a long-term project.
The media has rightly always had a great deal of understanding and empathy for the drawbacks of the measures. For the problems of entrepreneurs and artists. I also personally have a big heart for them and that attention must remain. But media cannot change reality. They can put people’s problems on the agenda and ask policymakers where we are now headed in the long term. A long-term vision is certainly not an entirely fun message. But journalists must keep asking the question.