BRUSSELS MUNICIPALITIES AT THE HEART OF THE MANAGEMENT OF THE HEALTH CRISIS
Since March 18, 2020, the lives of all of us have been turned upside down in Belgium ever since the first lockdown comes into effect at noon. Our family and social lives were brought to a standstill and our professional lives will never be the same again.
The attacks of 22 March 2016 in Brussels had plunged us into total disarray and already largely tested our capacity for resilience but this has been a tsunami by comparison.
States around the world have been forced to take drastic measures with significant consequences for all aspects of our societies.
Putting a city into lockdown is relatively easy, but restoring progressive freedoms to citizens is another matter!
And that's when governments call on the expertise of the communes. And when we say Communes, we are actually talking about the directors-general, who are always called municipal secretaries in the Brussels Region. We have become crisis managers who must at the same time manage the consequences of the pandemic, organise a new form of normal life and, moreover, catch up in the execution of local policies.
And as is often the case, local authorities take charge of what the regional or federal level decides but fails to achieve.
Some of you know will be aware of the complexity of the structures of the Belgian State and its local and regional components. Sometimes this leads to surreal situations, for example, we have no less than 8 ministers of health: a Federal minister, a Flemish minister, a Walloon minister, two ministers for Wallonia-Brussels, a minister for the Common Community Commission and the French Community Commission, a minister for the Common Community Commission and the Flemish Community Commission and a minister for the German-speaking community!
Fortunately, a visionary has anticipated this in our constitution, creating a mechanism that provides for a consultation committee in which the various representatives can come together, consult and decide, particularly with regard to pandemic management. Unfortunately, there is no representative of local government in this body... although it is the municipalities that implement federal decisions and are often responsible for them.
Initially, the control of containment measures consisted of closing parts of the public space, preventing movements in order to avoid contact between people and ensuring that the population has masks in the absence of federal stocks that had been destroyed a few years before and not replaced! The famous masks, an essential accessory for our safety... one day we will thank them for the adventures we have faced together!. Municipalities have had to work miracles to find surgical masks for their municipal agents who have remained on the ships bridge throughout the pandemic and for our citizens. Finally, social networks have brought out a solidarity that has made it possible to call on volunteer citizens to make cloth masks... and thus allowing healthcare and health institutions to never be overwhelmed and to continue functioning!
Nurseries will remain open, educational institutions closed for 3 months and then reopened firstly, remotely, then in hybrid formats creating challenges for teachers and parents alike.
Teleworking has become mandatory... however, it has been necessary to
ensure continuity of services at the local level, where ironically
local authorities have never been listed as essential services in
federal decrees. If you read many ministerial orders, you may be
surprised to read that Belgium does not legally have a state of
emergency and, to this day, we still do not have a law passed at the
federal level to deal with pandemics!
Speaking of the pandemic, our agents have obviously not been spared, despite the measures taken (masks, social distancing, hand gel, disinfection of the premises, plexi glass protective installation, the regular closure of nurseries, classes, entire services due to outbreaks have punctuated our days for a year and a half. As a result, an additional psycho-social burden has set in and the eternal cycle of organisation and reorganisation has accelerated.
But the most complex is coming now in the second phase: deconfinement! You can imagine ... the Conciliation Committee ... the 8 Ministers of Health ... the other competent ministers of the Communities (Education, Early Childhood, Sport, Culture, ...) of the federal rules which are constantly evolving...protocols of the Communities appear and all the responsibility for the articulation of all this rests with the Mayors and our local authorities. The police are also under huge pressure in our communes from the endless compliance checks to ensure that these measures are being followed. Hopefully, I do not need to draw a picture of the difficulties of implementing this institutional lasagna with which we are confronted. After fear, economic and psychological suffering... the revolt rumbles on, the thirst for freedom grows from month to month.
For "testing and tracing" it is the same ... local authorities have had to go in search of those who do not want to be tested or remain in quarantine ...
Vaccination, on the other hand, where the municipalities have a certain know-how for the logistical organisation of this type of large-scale operation (we organize all elections), has not been entrusted to the municipalities in the Brussels-Capital Region.
Luckily, our country has known outstanding artists who "invented" Surrealism ... behind which Belgium, its elected representatives and its inhabitants can hide .
And the situation described is therefore not surreal ... Thank you Magritte!
Not being pessimistic by nature, I am obliged to end with a positive touch and look at the final result: local authorities, their elected representatives, their staff have shown resilience in a difficult period in our history, also thanks to collaboration and inter-municipal solidarity.
We have rightly applauded the medical and nursing staff every night for months, and I think that the local staff deserve the same!
We have shown our professionalism and our assets during this extraordinary period: adaptability, resilience, continuity, proximity to the population, listening, creativity in the search for solutions and above all a lot of courage and perseverance!