700 doctors plead with public to wear facemasks

Summary

An open letter signed by more than 700 Belgian physicians criticises some of the federal government’s decisions to relax coronavirus measures, which they say came too soon, and to not require facemasks

‘The impression that it’s over’

An open letter signed by more than 700 physicians around the country is demanding that measures to control the spread of Covid-19 continue to be enforced among the population. The doctors also state that the use of facemasks should be required. The letter was published in Knack magazine.

The doctors are concerned about the public’s behaviour now that most of the measures to control the virus are no longer in effect. “People seem to have forgotten that the decrease in infections is the result of a lockdown and of following measures meticulously for weeks after that,” reads the letter. “We have noticed that, because of the downward trends, there is the impression that the coronavirus ‘is over’.”

While there are still basic measures in place to control the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and a ban on private gatherings of more than 15 people, most people are treating these measures very casually now, say the doctors.

The concept is simple: I protect you, you protect me. It is an inexpensive measure without any negative effects

“Over the last few weeks, measures have been relaxed very quickly, while at the same time people are following the measures that are in place less and less. There is less distancing, the ban on gathering in groups is constantly violated, the size of the bubbles is not always respected, people are shaking hands, and facemasks are disappearing from the streets and supermarkets.”

While facemasks are only required in public transport, many passengers are not wearing them. This became very apparent at the weekend when tens of thousands of travellers headed to the coast via the rail. Knokke’s mayor took to the media to complain about the number of people arriving in the city who stepped off the train without a facemask and who ignored basic social distancing measures.

The physicians are particularly angry about the government’s refusal to require that facemasks be worn in all public indoor settings. “The concept is simple: I protect you, you protect me. It is an inexpensive measure without any negative effects – unlike a lockdown.”

And they point to the confusion in the communication around facemasks. “The government created needless confusion at the beginning of the crisis by advising against wearing them and labelling them useless,” reads the letter. “Since then, it has become clear that this strategy was used because of the threat of a major shortage in masks. But of course masks are useful – otherwise we hospital workers would not need so many of them.”

The doctors point to other countries that did not ease up on coronavirus measures until the reproduction rate – the number of people infected by someone with the virus – was close to zero. They feel that Belgium chose “a compromise strategy” based on a decrease in the number of hospital admissions and deaths.

“We now call the daily figures weekly ‘trends’ and risk forgetting that behind these ‘trends’ are still a great many human lives.”

The letter then calls on the public to continue following measures strictly, including social distancing, washing hands thoroughly and wearing a facemask in public spaces such as shops and transport and certainly at the doctor’s office and hospital.

They also plead with the public to stick to the social bubbles, which as of yesterday numbers 15 people. “Different figures are applied to different events, such as church services and cultural activities. It needs to be clear: These are exceptions, and ones in which measures are in place such as distancing. This is not carte blanche to throw a barbecue or other gathering with a large number of people, not even outside.”

Photos, from top: ©Thierry Roge/BELGA, ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA