Respect for public healthcare system gives 'brave Belgians' the courage to maintain solidarity

08.02.2021

What are the motivations and drivers for Belgians to adhere to the COVID-measures? Beyond warm feelings of solidarity, respect for, and pride in, the public healthcare system appear to be crucial. This is what we have learned from in-depth interviews with 36 Belgian respondents.

This is a translation from a post originally published on December 24, 2020 on the "KU Leuven Blog". https://kuleuvenblogt.be/2020/12/24/respect-voor-de-gezondheidszorg-geeft-dappere-belgen-moed-om-solidair-te-blijven/

A very special thanks to Amicia Phillips for her generous support in the translation of this blogpost. 

 

Written by Elisa Lievevrouw and Ine Van Hoyweghen, researchers at the Centre for Sociological Research, KU Leuven. With the Life Sciences & Society Lab (with Janneke Kuiper, Joke Kenens, Gert Meyers, Siemen Vanstreels, Luca Marelli, Amicia Phillips) they have established the Belgian part of a European study on 'Solidarity in times of a pandemic'.

Only a few weeks after most European countries went into lockdown, researchers (headed by Professor Barbara Prainsack) set up the international SolPan consortium in record time. Together with colleagues from nine European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Switzerland), the SolPan project investigates how people are responding to the covid policies implemented and how - apart from the official policy measures - they are launching their own initiatives. What motivates us to follow or ignore the government's covid measures? What do we do to protect and support ourselves and others?

 

In last year’s remarkably emotional Christmas speech, the KU Leuven rector called for warm feelings of solidarity, or going that extra mile for others during covid times. His plea was not surprising given that in times of crisis, solidarity has often been mobilized as a panacea to relieve societal pressures. The question is, however, whether “warm feelings of solidarity” are sustainable. Prior research has shown that historically during crises, initial upsurges in feelings of solidarity, are later replaced by an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. How are these feelings of solidarity actualized in Belgium during the Covid-19 crisis?

At the beginning of the first lockdown, the KU Leuven Life Sciences & Society Lab set up the Belgian part of a European study on 'Solidarity in times of a pandemic'. In April 2020, we conducted in-depth interviews online with 36 Belgian respondents, who were then interviewed again in October 2020. In addition, we analysed the policy measures taken to fight the pandemic in Belgium, as well as relevant media coverage. The scientific analysis of this material is currently in full progress. What follows is an initial reflection on the results of our Belgian study on solidarity in corona times.

“Tous Ensemble”

As in many other European countries, the Covid-19 crisis came as a surprise in Belgium. When Covid-19 figures started to rise in March 2020, it was clear there was an urgent need for a unity of command.  Tous ensemble (All together) became the Belgian slogan in the shared struggle to flatten the curve. Belgium’s public health measures were explicitly framed as a precaution against exceeding the maximum capacity of hospital beds in intensive care. The closure of the residential care centers and the call to physically distance from elderly and vulnerable people were driven by this idea to safeguard - above all – the public healthcare system in Belgium.

As soon as the first lockdown was announced, numerous solidarity initiatives were set up, such as running errands for neighbours, volunteering in nursing homes, applauding for caregivers, or putting teddy bears on display in windows for the children. Tous ensemble became the shared mantra. Our respondents were involved in these acts of warm solidarity. Besides staying in regular contact with friends and family across all generations via video calls, they were particularly attentive to "the ones in extra need". There was a general feeling of "wanting to do something for the community". In doing so, our respondents seemed to conscientiously and dutifully follow the national governmental Covid-19 measures.

Considering the incentives to adhere to the measures imposed by Belgian authorities, it seems these motivations had their origins in the desire to safeguard the Belgian public healthcare system. A great deal of trust was expressed in the Belgian public healthcare system. Respondents were convinced that if they were infected with the virus, they would receive excellent care. They reported having tremendous respect for healthcare professionals during this period. In the same vein, respondents showed a strong societal awareness towards less-privileged people, indicating that healthcare should be accessible to all.

Threatening divisions?

At the dawn of the second lockdown (October 2020), the Tous ensemble sentiment of the first lockdown seemed to have disappeared. Many conflicting interests and groups – Flemish vs. Walloons, youth vs. elderly, virologists vs. other experts - made their entry into the media and political realms. Respondents also experienced ''corona fatigue'' and increasing anxiety. Some indicated that things felt tougher in comparison to the first lockdown given the prospect of a cold, lonely winter. Extra efforts to reach out to friends and family seen in the first lockdown had mostly disappeared. The teddy bears once displayed around the country returned to their closets, as people withdrew into themselves. Complying with the covid-19 measures had become more of "a routine".

However, the respondents persistently adhered to the Covid-19 measures. Wearing a mouth mask, for example, was considered as an act of solidarity as well as a way to display one’s adherence to the Covid-19 measures. Many of the respondents wore their mask "in order to protect others". Moreover, it became a new sign of "elementary politeness", or of "respect" towards others, as a symbol to demonstrate solidarity for the public healthcare system. Nevertheless, this adherence to the policy measures turned out to have a typically “Belgian flavor”. Respondents reportedly made their own "risk analysis" of the situation or made "compromises" to the Covid-19 rules but "all within the lines".

In October 2020, adherence to the Covid-19 policy measures continued to be motivated by the desire to safeguard the public healthcare system. As such, social awareness around the fact that a significant portion of the Belgian population lives in difficult socio-economic conditions was still strongly present among our respondents. With regard to vaccination, our respondents were unequivocal: risk groups, health professionals and the elderly have priority and it should again be affordable for everyone. While they were prepared to pay for the vaccine, they felt that government ought to step in to ensure that it be “affordable to everyone”. Once again, there was a strong identification with the public healthcare system. Despite the controversies in the media and politics, the Belgian respondents – though with a bit of "wear and tear" and typical Belgian "compromises" - appeared to be bravely pushing ahead with the measures.

“1,5 meters’ solidarity”: The extreme warmth of a cold solidarity

We think there is more behind the Belgian Tous ensemble-messaging, or the influx of warm solidarity practices as referred to by the KU Leuven rector. As the interviews show, the motives for adherence are grounded in a respect for, and pride in, the very foundation of Belgian society: the public healthcare system. The fear that permanent fissures in this system might occur under the pressure of the coronavirus has motivated our interviewees to go to extremes.

This drive to safeguard the public healthcare system refers not so much to warm practices of solidarity (as quoted in the rector's message) but to forms of solidarity that are supported by our cold-hearted social security infrastructures. This 'cold' form of solidarity seems to have provided the sustainable breeding ground to adhere to the Corona measures. This is also confirmed by international research. Strong public healthcare systems have the resilience to tackle large-scale threats when supported by collective action.

Unlike the international negative reporting on Belgium, the Belgians themselves seem to have bravely supported the Covid-19 measures. Governmental disputes, complex organizational structures, and non-working coalition politics did not affect Belgians in supporting the covid measures. Our respondents indicate that they stand behind the principle of a public healthcare system and are prepared to bear many sacrifices and costs to sustain it. This way, Belgians are not only “born with a brick in the stomach” as the Flemish saying goes; they also seem to be born with a robust portion of solidarity in their DNA (at least when it pertains to health care).

 

The Life Sciences and Society Lab, headed by Ine Van Hoyweghen, conducts social scientific research into solidarity in medicine and healthcare. Together with the Centre for Sociological Research (CeSO) they published the book 'Shifting Solidarities. Trends and Developments in European Societies' in 2020. Which societal developments have an impact on solidarity in different domains of social life (work, social policy, family, health, culture)? This topic is also central to the new English language Master's program in Sociology at KU Leuven. The program will start in September 2021.

 

 

"Of all the Gauls, the Belgians are the bravest" (Julius Caesar).