Some countries are paradoxical. The Netherlands, for example, is a Calvinist country with a very puritanical ideological and moral basis. However it is also well known for its lax attitudes towards sex and drugs and rock and roll, due to that same Calvinism – respect for individual judgment is taken to such an extreme that no one wants to stop people going to the devil however they want.
Neighbouring Belgium presents a similar paradox to the outsider. If you think Ukraine is the frontline, look at Belgium. That is where the real action is going on!
The former unitary state, dominated from its foundation by French speakers from the south who called their garden sheds “Flanders houses”, was forced by 1960s Flemish revolt to become an uneasy condominium of clearly defined French and Flemish areas, in which public services can only be provided in the relevant language, whatever the language of the speaker. Its political parties similarly split along ethno-linguistic lines, with liberals, for example, often taking opposing sides on given positions when they had been one party, with one programme, previously.
Furthermore, the Flemish speaking north, having been the poor relation in the days of heavy industry has come to dominate economically at the expense of the south. This has created not simply a new class of wealthy, but a whole ethno-linguistic group fulfilling what they see as Manifest Destiny and a delayed justice, all the more pervasive for being subtle, assumed, rather than thrown into the other side’s face so they can argue about it.
All this, and setting a record for the longest period without a national government, has made Belgium as much a candidate for civil war and separation than Yugoslavia ever was. But far from being centre stage in a tense and on-going drama, the rest of Europe loves to describe Belgium using one word: boring.
Forty odd years ago the BBC radio programme Stop The Week, a sort of parlour room discussion programme featuring erudite intellectuals, had some lighthearted banter about Belgium being one big cabbage field. To prove the assertion that it was boring, one of the panellists asked the question: can you name six famous Belgians?
It is admittedly quite difficult to do this without looking them up. But no one could have predicted then that the question would become so emblematic of how people perceive Belgium that it became almost a catchphrase. Even today, people who never heard the discussion use it as their prism through which to view Belgium, fairly or not, because we all know what is implied.
While the rest of the world begs for stories which will inflame passions, Belgians just go about their business, revelling in the least interesting details of that. It is this spirit that this article appeared in the English-language Brussels Times: “21,000 Belgian worker claims for Covid compensation”.
But maybe there is a lot more interest in this story than its setting in Belgium would suggest. In itself, it is another collection of dry facts and figures which arouses no one. Thinking it through, however, presents a different picture.
Dying of Living
Belgium has declared Covid to be an “Occupational Disease”. This is one you catch whilst doing your regular paid work, as a result of conditions inherent in that workplace.
For example, coal miners end up with lung disease because conditions in the mines are conducive to it. Some people who work in noisy factories develop hearing loss. The International Labour Organisation’s list of such diseases makes grim reading, even more so when you consider it hasn’t been updated since 2010.
We all have to wear masks because we could all catch Covid from anybody, anywhere. We don’t know where everyone has been, or what their health status is or was before they got there.
But Belgium, alongside some other countries, has recognised that people in particular occupations are exposed to it more than others do to the nature of their work. Or rather, because they may have been infected by a work outbreak – despite the fact we are told these outbreaks could take place anywhere, at any time.
By definition, occupational diseases occur because someone does a particular job, as opposed to another one, which exposes them to the agent causing the disease. If you dig the coal, you inhale the coal dust. If you work as an administrator of the miners’ union, in a serviced office nowhere near a coalface, you are not going to catch lung disease as a result of your work, at least not for that reason.
If Covid is an occupational disease, the “occupation” causing the disease is work itself. Previously this protection applied to healthcare workers, who by definition will always be exposed to disease, regardless of location or grade. It can also be argued that other occupations, such as laundry work, will leave people exposed to infection, and that if people work in generalised Covid hotspots, particular cities or environments, they too could be at risk.
But Covid is so widespread that everyone is at risk of it, all the time. This is the underlying principle behind all the public health measures taken to combat it. Not only those in risk groups, or living with those in risk groups, but everyone, is required to take anti-Covid measures, as this is of course far preferable to issuing certain people yellow stars.
The occupation which makes Covid an occupational disease is breathing. So who is responsible for this occupational disease? Who should pay compensation, and who should be held accountable, where is the line drawn between personal and corporate responsibility for Covid sickness?
Death is Just a Concept
Health and Safety at work is taken seriously nowadays, and so it should be. However a cardinal principle of that is that, in the first instance, the worker is responsible for their own health and safety. They have to take all reasonable measures to protect themselves from risk, such as closing desks, wearing any protective clothing issued, walking instead of running, etcetera.
If a worker suffers occupational health damage, they can only successfully claim against their employer if the workplace hadn’t taken the necessary steps to prevent it, but they had. If the worker had been negligent themselves, they will receive a reduced settlement or no settlement at all, if they suffer occupational health damage.
If Covid is an occupational disease, when you can get it anywhere from anyone, what measures should those affected by it take to avoid catching it? If they have followed all guidelines imposed upon them in the workplace, but contracted it nevertheless, how can that be blamed on the workplace when they are potentially exposed to the disease anywhere?
If government or workplace protection advice was faulty, you have to prove it but on the basis of what? If hundreds of people still catch the disease whilst following advice later discredited, how many lives were nevertheless saved by following that same advice? Then who is responsible – the government, the workplace, those who gave the advice, science in general, those who overruled other suggestions? Or the people who voted for them, and sent their children to study under them?
If a workplace, and no other environment, is found to have caused a person to contract a disease they can get anywhere, who pays compensation? Workplaces are usually insured against any liability claims arising from carrying out their work, and in many countries such insurance is compulsory. Companies will also fight any such claim, unless the insurance pays for everything and they can get away with anything as long as the costs are reimbursed, which then raises other labour protection questions.
Insurance companies then rightly object to paying out all this money. These companies generally have considerable political influence – witness Hillary Clinton’s speech on winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2008, about how it was time for America to have someone who represents “all of you” rather than the insurance companies. They won’t pay out unless they get something better out of it, and have the means to remove politicians who try and make them.
Those politicians may use Belgian state funds to compensate Covid affected workers as a political gesture. But everything else nowadays is a mixture of public and private. Tenders will be put out, officially or otherwise, for providing Covid relief, and other levels of government will be encouraged, with hooks behind them, to make a contribution in their areas, where the infections occurred.
Furthermore, Belgium won’t be able to act unilaterally forever. If treating Covid as an occupational disease is seen to be beneficial, some sort of EU standard will be adopted, based on existing models, and eventually it will roll out across all member states. This is turn will have an effect on trading and commercial relations with the rest of the world, let alone food safety and other sanitary regulations.
We’re all in this together, provided no one is actually responsible. If catching Covid is compensated at no real cost, through insurance agreements and associated backhanders, because it has been declared an “occupational disease”, but what about the real ones? Would having your hand chopped off by an unmaintained machine with broken wires also be a random act of God, for which no one is responsible or liable, as long as the system can be made to find the money, at no cost to those who did this?
We Live, You Die
History is full of laws which were well meaning but ultimately had the opposite effect. In 1852 Emperor Franz Josef of Austria famously freed all the slaves in his empire at the stroke of a pen. However he didn’t provide them with paid jobs or homes to go to, creating marauding bands of homeless brigands that hastened the end of the Habsburg dynasty.
In 1978 Italy passed its infamous Equo Canone law to address its housing crisis, which was created by the tradition of extended families living at home, whose multiple incomes drove housing costs to ridiculous levels. Under this law, apartments had to be let at artificially low rents to those who needed them, meaning that thousands of Italians owned apartments they were not allowed to live in, and exploiters continued as before
But then this was before Tangentopoli, so the politicians weren’t responsible, the Mafia were. The politicians could run off with the good intention, while the faceless Mob was saddled, as if it cared, with the unfortunate consequences.
It could be argued that treating Covid as an occupational disease is simply a well-meaning attempt to provide some compensation for its victims. The answer to that is: Marc Dutroux.
This serial killer, sex trafficker, child molester and rapist was convicted in a Belgian court 2004, alng with a few accomplices. However his trial revealed a murky web of connections with the highest echelons of Belgian society, including the trial judge.
A parliamentary enquiry was called, but its findings were either moderated or suppressed, according to the chair of that enquiry. Much of the evidence against Dutroux was mishandled or ignored, and many witnesses and involved persons have been found mysteriously dead.
If all these matters had been resolved, and those implicated either exonerated or convicted, we could say that the Belgian state was not predisposed to act wrongly and then do whatever it can to protect itself and its friends. They haven’t been, so we can’t, and today’s rather different Belgium knows we can’t.
When Belgium pulls a stunt which sounds well-meaning but has other consequences, conclusions are going to be drawn. It will be very difficult for even the best of the best to state truthfully that these are totally without foundation.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.