When democracy is infected by Covid-19

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According to the European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, the lifting of the most drastic containment measures at the beginning of the summer has had the much feared effect: a rise in cases. This has led some to criticize the Wilmes government’s September easing measures. Since March, Belgium has been among the strictest countries, largely in line with the measures applied in France. Restrictive measures whose effectiveness is, at the very least, debatable, given Belgium’s catastrophic results in managing the health crisis. A broad public debate that we would like to see the media, political parties, and the entire population take charge of. However, we are far from it. 

WHEN THE EMOTION MAKES LOSE THE REASON 

First, we question the role played by the official media in the health crisis, playing more the card of dramatization, guilt and accusation, instead of assuming the role of honest broker in the debates. Examples are legion. 

In its edition of October 23, the newspaper De Morgen published the Tribune « Dear Lieven Annemans. You are the clown between the acrobats and the trapeze artists ». Because he advocated the relaxation of corona measures, due to the mental damage caused by the disease, this health economist has been described as the man who minimizes the virus. Understand:  » a reassurer « . A scientist, for whom liberticidal sanitary measures are disproportionate and who refuses to be governed by fear. A firestorm of criticism that led him to withdraw from Celeval, the advisory body that helps the government fight the corona crisis. Is it legitimate to violently discredit an academic or a scientist in the public square, under the pretext that he or she is swimming against the tide? Does the climate of collective psychosis, self-maintained by the media, make people lose their reason to such an extent that the principles of courtesy and respect in the exchange of ideas are buried in the process? In view of the rise of a growing intolerance to any opinion that does not fit into the dominant doxa, one dares not imagine the fate reserved in Belgium for the most listened to Swedish virologist, Anders Tegnell, who did not advocate confinement or the obligation to wear a mask, for example, and whose advice was nonetheless scrupulously followed by his government, in opposition to the strategies followed by the majority of the European countries. There is little doubt that this virologist, for whom  » The virus will not be eradicated, even with a vaccine. We will have to learn to live with it « (1), would have been lynched by the media, labelled as an irresponsible Darwinist, even if his strategy had not resulted in a death toll worse than ours, which would have forced him to fundamentally review his copy. It’s because in our country, the high priests of anxiety-provoking information are at the helm. Anathemas and insults from all sides, including in the official media, are flourishing. A selection. 

« We must urgently protect ourselves from the misguidedness of conspiracy theorists and deniers: there is danger in the human home « (2). The terms are strong. The crime of « negationism » is punishable by law. Does « health denier » mean a person who denies the very existence of the virus, a mere figment of the mind, or a person who calls, for example, for a different interpretation of the raw figures, published by Sciensano, pointing out that the mortality figure remains stable? This puts the danger of the epidemic into perspective. What do we mean by « conspiracy theorist »? A normal citizen who believes that the virus was created by man to wipe out the population or a citizen who exercises his critical sense? 

At this stage of the health crisis, where emotion prevails over reason, all amalgams are allowed. The only scientific truth that is valid is certainly that of the so-called « alarmist » scientists (as opposed to « reassurance » scientists). The word « conspiracy » has become a catch-all word, used rightly or wrongly, whose most immediate effect is to cut short the debate and to divide society. It sounds like an excommunication from the seraglio of the « right-thinking ». 

What’s more. It is a real witch-hunt that the orthodox « sanitary correctness » supporters are engaged in, of which the editorial published in La Libre Belgique, on October 17–18, is an enlightening example.  » (…) This fight against the virus is not the business of a few, it is the business of all. The grumblers, those who know better than everyone else, will criticize, rebel. These uncivilized people have a heavy responsibility in the spread of the virus. Because it is not their lives that they are putting at risk. But those of others, especially the fragile ones « .

The culprits are clearly designated. Citizens. Those who would have the audacity to question the relevance and coherence of political choices, the « proportionality » of measures in the rule of law, the socio-economic damage of a second brutal confinement, the alarming deterioration of the psychological health of the population, in the face of the prolongation of sine die of unnatural anti-social measures. Even though the political leaders have insulted our collective intelligence by enacting totally incoherent rules, such as the protocol to be followed in restaurants, we can deduce that a « good citizen » is one who remains silent, giving his blank check to the government in the management of the crisis. 

Of course, such statements are only binding on the author. However, they are not accidental. They denote a media drift, where the press becomes « muzzling ». The key is not that the measures are always more stringent, but that they are accepted. This presupposes, first of all, that they demonstrate their effectiveness. This presupposes the holding of an open and contradictory scientific debate, including in medical care, which does not stoop to the level of invective and insults. It is astonishing to see that scientists, academics and health care personnel who question the current health strategy are discredited, relegated to the rank of « reassurers », or even « conspiracy theorists », in other words,  » heresy scientists « , pariahs. 

Stigmatization. The media have a key role to play in preventing this dangerous drift. Avoiding the trap of unspoken propaganda. As soon as a person is afraid to express himself, for fear of being condemned because his point of view does not correspond to the health doxa, these are as many cracks in the edifice of « democracy ». 

Journalism as a counter-power. Reveal the hidden side of things. The essence of investigative journalism. To feed the democratic debate and to advance mentalities, in the respect of each one. A cardinal principle that must imperatively regain its letters of nobility. 

WHEN SCIENCE TURNS INTO IDEOLOGY 

That there is a scientific controversy about the health crisis is not surprising, as the virus is far from having revealed all its secrets. Asserting scientific certainties in this context is all the more risky as independent scientific research is structurally underfunded. In this case, whenever a scientific study is used to justify a political measure, it is necessary to question both its financing and potential conflicts of interest. This is a precaution that political leaders should always take. For example, when the Minister-President of Brussels-Capital, Rudy Vervoort, justifies the maintenance of the generalized wearing of masks outdoors by relying on a study reported by Marc Van Ranst(3) says  » Why should we trust this particular study (without even quoting it), recommended by anexpert known for his many thunderous declarations in favor of ever more repressive health measures? How would this study be more credible than others, which claim the opposite, but which are likely to be dismissed as agents of conspiracy? In short, a selection is made, which is more a matter of an assumed political choice, and not of irrefutable scientific proof. Moreover, not all European countries have aligned themselves with measures that are so detrimental to individual freedom. In Sweden, there is still no question of compulsory wearing of masks. In Holland, a limited number of sectors are affected. Are we to believe that these countries are run by irresponsible political leaders, in the grip of fanciful and iconoclastic experts? If the political decision to restrict the right to breathe in the open air is scientifically proven, how do we explain that these countries have not experienced a higher mortality rate than ours? More fundamentally, given that political leaders have managed to say everything and its opposite about the usefulness of the mask to stop the spread of the virus in a few months, haven’t they themselves misused science by abusing this argument of authority? 

A reading of the official documents of the World Health Organization (WHO), which could not reasonably be suspected of being part of the « complosphere », allows us to think so. In fact, the latest version of the Interim Guidance on Mask Wearing, updated on June 5, states:  » Many countries have recommended that the general public cover their faces, including with a cloth mask. At present, there is no good direct evidence of the effectiveness of widespread mask use by healthy people in the community and a balance of benefits and harms is needed « (4). The WHO lists the potential benefits as:  » giving people the impression that they are helping to stop the spread of the virus « ,  » reminding people of other measures (barriers) to take « . As for the list of disadvantages, let’s remember among others:  » the potentially increased risk of self-contamination from handling a face mask ‚ » headache and/or breathing difficulties « ,  » difficulty in communicating clearly « ,  » difficulties related to the wearing of the mask by children, asthmatics or people suffering from chronic respiratory diseases (…) ».

In light of these recommendations, it is surprising that the Belgian government, which is a lover of multilateralism, has paid little attention to the nuanced advice of the WHO. However, if last summer, the generalized obligation to wear masks outdoors in certain cities aroused opposition, it was precisely because of its arbitrary, disproportionate and unsupported nature by any scientific consensus. No matter what. Claiming the right to breathe outdoors is now (very) frowned upon. An act of shameless selfishness, an incivility, even a crime, the tyranny of individual freedom? Moreover, the fact that teachers, and more particularly secondary school students, have the sad privilege of having to carry it for many hours, without the question of the risks, especially for schooling, being discussed, their suffering heard, is in contrast to the rhetoric of collective solidarity towards vulnerable people, which the media and political leaders hammer into us every day. More generally, what is the value of speeches of benevolence, according to the established formula  » Take care of yourself and others « , when in fact it is not even allowed to discuss the state of our fundamental rights, affected by the health crisis? However, this is increasingly causing concern among many lawyers and legal experts, who feel that certain restrictive measures have too weak a legal basis or who question their « proportionality ». 

In an era when scientific studies are increasingly used for political purposes, leaders are required to base their decisions on solid, irrefutable scientific evidence, citing their sources. Otherwise, they will fuel the citizens’ distrust of politics. In this respect, the quote from the philosopher Hannah Arendt is strikingly topical:  » When everyone lies to you all the time, the result is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything anymore. A people who can no longer believe anything cannot form an opinion. He is deprived not only of his ability to act but also of his ability to think and judge « .

COMMUNICATION STRATEGY

 » The health marathon will last at least until the summer of 2021. It is our behavior that will decide the life or death of a vulnerable person  » says Prime Minister Alexander De Croo(5). The ultimate weapon against the virus: guilt. The heritage of our Judeo-Christian culture, which the political leaders are playing with at full speed. If we have to tighten the screw, it is because a fringe of citizens (in particular, young people, the latest category to be clearly stigmatized) do not respect the barrier gestures. Deviant » citizens in whom a potential murderer may lie dormant. It is their fault that we now have to make choices in hospitals. 

Collective guilt: a convenient way to hide the gaping holes in politics. In their defense, it is difficult to navigate by sight. This should inspire us with indulgence. Especially since the implementation of certain measures to correct the situation is now taking time. Reducing hospital overcrowding requires, among other things, investment in front-line care, training of health care personnel, valuing the nursing profession, etc. This cannot be done with a simple spoonful of water. However, it is incumbent upon political leaders to put their own house in order. The crisis in hospitals is the result of political decisions taken upstream, which are rooted in a corpus of neoliberal measures, bearing the seal of the Washington Consensus, believing in the« liberalization, deregulation and privatization  » of the economy. These recipes have been widely applied in Belgium, with the blessing of a succession of governments, generally involving parties that claim to be anchored on the left, one of the avatars of which is the European Budget Pact. A veritable budgetary chastity belt, it reflects a vision of the political economy that is self-mutilating. It came into effect in 2013 and set in stone the principle of budgetary austerity, for which the community is now paying a painful price. That of a chronic public disinvestment in health care, despite an aging demography, which takes the entire Belgian population hostage. 

That political communication errors are made in the management of the crisis is probably inevitable, even excusable. The Belgian institutional lasagne does not help. This does not justify operating in the mode of infantilisation. The Sciensano press conference of October 7, where Yves Van Laethem explained the guide of the perfect « host », will remain in the annals. The government now invites itself in our kitchen, our living room, dining room, toilet. In short, our private, intimate space. Symptomatically, if he insists on the importance of providing hydroalcoholic gel at the table and an envelope for the mask, he singularly omits to pronounce on the importance of having a healthy, balanced, varied diet to fortify his immune system. The beaba to not fall into the category of « vulnerable », knowing that patients with a history of cardiovascular, obesity, diabetics, are likely to develop severe forms of the disease. 

Why, in this context, is a national action plan against junk food, in response to the health crisis, not on the ministers’ agenda? As the European Commission reminds us in its « Farm to Fork » strategy (May 2020):  » More than 950,000 deaths (1 in 5) and more than 16 million years of healthy life lost in the Union in 2017, mainly due to cardiovascular disease and cancer, were attributable to unhealthy diets.6 He added:  » Obesity is gaining ground. More than half of the adult population is now overweight, which contributes to a high prevalence of diet-related diseases (including various types of cancer) and associated health care costs « . Clearly, it is the weakening of the immune system that causes the category of « vulnerable persons » to be exploded by the principle of communicating vessels. So why don’t the media, which bludgeons us daily with figures on Covid-19 mortality, do the same for cancer (9 million deaths per year worldwide), another co-morbidity factor? This would shed new light on the major challenges to be met in terms of public health, according to a holistic approach, where the challenge is to attack the root of the problem. 

Similarly, in the government’s « 11 Million Team » campaign, it is surprising that physical activity, such as walking, jogging or cycling, during which one can breathe deeply, is not included in the famous « golden rules », even though healthy eating and physical activity are the alpha and omega of a preventive health approach. 

More globally, let’s recall that the European Environment Agency pointed out, in its report of last September 8, that pollution kills hundreds of thousands of people each year in Europe, that is to say 13% of deaths. And to underline that the emergence of the pandemic of coronavirus must make us think about the impact of the environmental degradation on human health. Logically, when public authorities justify draconian measures of deprivation of liberty on the grounds that health is a top priority, this issue should be in the political spotlight, with a view to a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to health protection. This is not the case. It is as if the political leaders were blinded, with their noses in the air, managing the epidemic in a small way, without vision. 

The constant tightening of the screws: Franck Vandenbroucke, Minister of Health, justifies it  » so as not to have any deaths on his conscience « . By heavily underestimating the extent of the collateral socio-economic and psychological damage, it contributes to the destruction of society. Forgetting, to paraphrase Renaud Girard, co-author of the book Quand la psychose fait dérailler le monde, that man is not only a sanitary being. He is also a social being, an economic being, a cultural being, a spiritual being. 

Inès Trépant,
political scientist, author of essays on European politics. 

Notes et références
1. https://www.7sur7.be/monde/le-marc-van-ranst-suedois-on-ne-pourra-pas-eradiquer-le-virus-meme-avec-un-vaccin-il-va-falloir-apprendre-a-vivre- avec~a53c0ba6/?referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F 2. Chronique de Xavier Zeegers, “Quand la raison recule”, parue dans La Libre Belgique, 25 septembre 2020. 3. Crf. Interview de Rudy Vervoort, l’invité de Matin Première, 26 août 2020. 4. Conseils sur le port du masque dans le cadre de la COVID-19 : Orientations provisoires, pp.7–10. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/332448/WHO-2019-nCov-IPC_Masks-2020.4‑fre.pdf 5. Interview du Premier ministre donnée dans La Libre Belgique, 24–25 octobre 2020. 6. Page 15. Pôle scientifique de l’UE: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/health-knowledge-gateway/societal-impacts/burden.
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