Testimonial from Christophe Gouache, 2012 alumni and Senior Design Consultant in Brussels.
How do people feel about the health crisis in Brussels?
Like every country in the world, Belgium is also affected by this unprecedented situation, that of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many countries, Belgium is in lockdown. And like everywhere, it’s making people think.
In Belgium, strong federal measures were taken very early on. Cafés and restaurants had to close their doors from midnight on Friday 13 March 2020. Inevitably, some lockdown parties were organized by a few people here and there until midnight to “finish up the barrels of beer” – we are in Belgium after all. From 18 March, it was all the shops which had to close, with the exception of food stores, bookshops (no doubt so people could stock up on books for the confinement), banks, post offices, petrol stations and of course pharmacies. Snack bars and fritkots (a Belgian term for chip shops) are authorized to stay open for takeaway sales.
When the lockdown was announced, the Belgians, like many others elsewhere, rushed to the supermarket to stock up on toilet rolls, pasta, flour, eggs, sardines and tinned food, etc. In short, all the basics needed to survive lockdown. After a few days, people realized that most products were being restocked regularly and therefore returned to their “normal” buying habits.
How would you compare the situation in Brussels and the situation in France?
Belgium, unlike France, asked its inhabitants to stay at home but didn’t need to wield the stick (Vedung, 1998). In other words, no need to fill out a form to leave the house and no police running around after people who dare to leave their living room. Belgian citizens can leave their homes freely without having to justify their movements. They did however need a little reminder of the rules as certain inhabitants took advantage of this “invitation” to set up camp in parks, making the most of the sunshine and spending the whole day there… Posters and barriers were thus put up to remind inhabitants of the rules, and people were given a “telling off” by prime minister, Sophie Wilmès. By the way, please note that Belgium now has a government! That’s right, we had been without a government for over 400 days. The coronavirus speeded up the process of forming a government. On the whole, Belgian citizens are pretty respectful of the rules imposed by the government and that is perhaps another cultural difference between France and Belgium (and more broadly the countries in northern Europe).
We are also seeing new forms of solidarity and social ties. Doing the food shopping for an elderly neighbor – yes, Rachel, I did buy the food for the church cat -, clapping and music on the balcony at 8pm where neighbors who have lived next door to one another for years are saying hello for the first time, etc. Private stakeholders are also playing the solidarity game: Villo (Brussels’ cycle hire company) offered a one-year free subscription to healthcare workers, and Billy and Poppy (bikes, cars and electric scooters) are also offering 100% free transport to medical staff. Applications putting neighbors in touch with each other have also experienced a boom (Hoplr, Peerby, etc.).
The fact that the confinement was requested rather than imposed authoritatively as in France bears witness, in my opinion, to a profound difference in the “treatment of citizens”. By default, the French government opted for the approach of not trusting the citizens (taking the line that only threats work with French citizens, which inevitably leaves no chance for other ways of working). The Belgian government, on the other hand, is banking on public confidence and the fact that - on the whole - they respect the rules pretty well. And the handful of reprimands made here and there do not result in a tightening of rules across the board!
Health-wise, it should be noted that the crisis is pretty much under control (despite the lack of masks and respirators, like elsewhere) but that can perhaps be explained by the fact that Belgium has one of the best health systems in Europe (top 5 in Europe and top 10 in the world).
What about life after the pandemic?
Obviously, this crisis is going to have a significant impact on the way we work (thousands of workers are trying out working from home), the way we protect workers (thousands of workers have been furloughed with a big drop in salary - 70% of the salary in Belgium), the way we prioritize public spending (e.g. reinvesting in the health system?) but also the interdependence of nations in international trade (shortages in the event of a crisis), as well as the education sector (and the underuse of communication technologies in teaching), or the food production and industry sector (local reindustrialization in certain sectors?). There will no doubt be many lessons to learn and a lot of changes. In addition, the recent upturn in civic interest in environmental issues goes hand in hand with the lessons that can be learnt from this pandemic (moderating consumption, limiting hyper-mobility, buying locally, producing locally, etc.). Finally, from a social point of view, this crisis has re-strengthened social ties and even generated new ones which, in some cases, are likely to last beyond this pandemic (increased contact with families, friends, communities, etc.).
What role can design play in the post-Covid 19 age?
Design, and particularly public policy design and service design, will undoubtedly have an important role to play after Covid 19. In fact, a huge number of innovations are already emerging, including social innovations, service innovations and even product innovations. In addition, the flexibility and rationale of experimentation and the culture of co-creation with users – which are at the heart of design approaches – are precisely what we are striving to incorporate into the making of public policy. Bringing this design culture (and this capacity for creative and pragmatic improvisation) into public administrations seems more essential than ever. Finally, working in immersion, in contact with reality, with users, to understand each other’s realities and limitations, increases not only our knowledge of the field but also develops empathy… something which our public stakeholders are desperately in need of.
This historic health crisis has turned the whole world upside down and will permanently mark our generation. But we also know that, unfortunately, it is only when humans are faced with crises that we start to question ourselves, think outside the box and innovate. So, let’s hope that this terrible crisis gives us a wakeup call about the unsustainable development model we have dived into head first, and lets us move towards a more sustainable, more democratic, fairer and more supportive world.