Corona: how the crucial lesson was not learned. ‘A great disillusionment’

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The scientific evidence is extremely powerful. In a recently published article in the top professional magazine Science dozens of scientists are calling on a minimum quality requirement for air in indoor spaces. The World Health Organization also advocates in a new report for ventilating homes, schools and other indoor spaces as “a crucial component to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2”.

It seems to be the crucial lesson of the pandemic. “That is true,” says virologist Marc Van Ranst, who already put the theme on our map in March 2020. “But it’s a shame that realization never fully dawned. Belgium was a guiding country for a while, when the CO2-meter became mandatory in catering and education. I hoped it would be a keeper, but alas. The government should have given an extra push, and that didn’t work. A great disillusionment.”

“It has been a long battle,” says Federal Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit). “The legislation has been ready since the end of last year. But there is resistance from all regional governments, regardless of political composition. And there was also not enough support within the federal government to link mandatory air quality measurement in certain sectors to obtaining a certificate. But we will not let the work come to a standstill. In the Committee on Public Health tomorrow (Tuesday April 2, JDC) decides to switch to voluntariness. Anyone who invests in air quality can still receive a certificate to signal to customers that the air is safe.”

Spinning in the fitness.Image Rebecca Fertinel

Mysterious report

The discussion about the spread of the coronavirus has raged. After it was initially thought that hand hygiene and distance from spit-up droplets were especially important, the realization gradually dawned – but too slowly – that the virus remains in the air, that you contract it by inhaling the exhaled air of an infected person.

If we ventilate or clean the air, there will also be less flu and fewer colds

Marc Van Ranstvirologist (KU Leuven)

“Compare it with tobacco smoke,” says Marc Van Ranst. “Today we can no longer imagine that someone would smoke in the café, in the past this was the most normal thing in the world. This should also evolve with the realization that a room full of viruses and other microbes is not healthy. I think that insight is one of the silver linings in the corona cloud: if we ventilate or clean the air, there will also be less flu and fewer colds. We could be sick less often if we take the right measures. That also has an economic value. There would be less absenteeism due to illness.”

Van Ranst is nuanced about the commotion that arose last week about Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts (N-VA). The colleagues of The last news revealed that a report on poor air quality in Flemish classrooms was not shared with the general public.

“The report was presented to the experts,” says Van Ranst. “I was present and I didn’t have the feeling that anyone wanted to keep it a secret. The report also contained no news: we knew that most Flemish classrooms are poorly ventilated. There is a lot of criticism of Weyts, but I don’t always share it: when it really mattered, he did what was necessary.”

Nightlife in Ghent’s Overpoort.Image Wannes Nimmegeers

Targeted sectors

Heavy investment in ventilation and air purification has not taken place at Flemish level. Inquiries into the Jambon cabinet reveal, among other things, that Vandenbroucke’s plans were not feasible and that the sectors on which he focused – culture, sports, catering and events – felt targeted.

“I understand that too,” says Marc Van Ranst. “If not everyone has to take a bath, if the doctor’s waiting room or the town hall does not have to meet the same standards, then the catering sector, for example, has a point with its resistance. There was also resistance among the liberals (Inquiries at Open Vld show that this is correct, JDC). And politics is simply the art of the feasible.”

Fresh air is the best way to prevent general measures such as a lockdown

Frank VandenbrouckeMinister of Health (Forward)

In addition to the fact that the obligation would not apply everywhere, there was – according to the cabinet of Jan Jambon (N-VA) – also discussion about the distribution of powers and a lack of consultation with the sectors. Brussels Minister Elke Van den Brandt (Green) also complains about “one-way traffic” during the consultation, which “threatened to get in the way of proper application”.

Vandenbroucke says that consultations took place 25 times. He also points out that we need to think about the future. “If a new virus emerges that spreads through the respiratory tract, and against which we have no vaccine, then fresh air is the best way to prevent general measures such as a lockdown.”

“More attention is already being paid to air quality,” concludes Marc Van Ranst. “People know that it is smart to open windows and doors. That realization will remain. What is happening now, making the certificate voluntary, is Vandenbroucke’s realpolitik. But it also remains a quality mark for catering and fitness businesses on a voluntary basis, and I hope that further steps will one day be put back on the political agenda.”

Anyone who invests in air quality can receive a certificate to signal to customers that the air is safe

Frank VandenbrouckeMinister of Health (Forward)

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Corona crucial lesson learned great disillusionment

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