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'Covid has become a part of our lives': Brussels coronavirus crisis manager Inge Neven steps down

14:19 29/07/2022

After more than two years of serving as the face of Brussels’ pandemic response, even more so than health minister Alain Maron, the region's coronavirus manager Inge Neven is stepping down from her role at the end of August.

Neven has always been clear that her position as the crisis manager for the coronavirus pandemic was temporary, but her popularity has resulted in reactions of surprise and even disappointment to the announcement that she will be moving on. 

Maron, along with Brussels’ minister president Rudi Vervoort, faced regular criticism for their response to the pandemic, including that neither man was visible enough throughout the health crisis. But Neven’s response to the crisis was largely met with praise. 

In an interview with Bruzz about her impending departure, Neven described her work during the pandemic as incredibly rewarding. 

“Many people [in the health inspectorate] say that they have never had a job with such a great impact on society,” Neven said. 

“Colleagues who are leaving because we had to downsize are wondering if they will ever find a job that feels so meaningful again. The strength of the team was also that everyone was there with their heart. That made it extra painful to have to reduce staff, which in itself was a logical step.”

But she also expressed frustration with the political system in Brussels: “There is so much fragmentation in Brussels. Sometimes even the health inspectorate no longer knew who was working on prevention.”

Covid is ‘a part of our lives’

Many of the people sad to see Neven go will be quick to point out that the pandemic isn’t over, as Covid-19 cases continue to apply pressure to the hospital system. 

There are currently 2,000 patients hospitalised in Belgium in connection with Covid-19, and the reproduction rate is hovering at 0.94. When higher than 1, this indicator means that the transmission of the virus is accelerating.

As of 29 July, all coronavirus indicators are down except for deaths, which increased by 14% in just one week. 

And while there has been a 35% decrease in detected cases, that figure is somewhat distorted by the holiday that took place during the reporting period. If the holiday is removed from consideration, a drop remains but is less dramatic. 

“The problem is under control and Covid has become a part of our lives. At the same time, there are hardly any measures left during this seventh wave,” Neven said.

“We will have to wait and see what happens in the autumn, because society no longer seems prepared to accept many restrictive measures. Everyone is a bit tired of Covid, including me for that matter, answering the same questions over and over again.”

Neven said that autumn will bring the need to resume some pandemic-related habits, including proper ventilation, social distancing and the wearing of masks.

“Especially with older and vulnerable people, we have to remain careful,” said Neven. 

“If we respect these basics, we may be able to avoid additional measures. As for the elderly, you don't protect them so much by vaccinating yourself, because you can still get infected and pass on the virus. A mask and distance do help.”

Next steps for Neven

Neven said that while Covid remains, her work is no longer needed: “I think that all the necessary new instruments are there now. In principle, we now have an answer to every new situation. We are still finalising the plans for the next pandemics.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Neven said she regularly worked seven days a week, often 16 or 17 hours a day. Journalists noted that she frequently responded quickly to questions at all hours of the day, including late at night. 

“My husband recently reminded me that we used to express time in minutes and he would see me in the evening for 15 to 30 minutes at dinner, before I went back to my desk,” said Neven. “I am very grateful to my family for their patience.”

Neven plans to take some time to think about the next step in her career. 

She and her husband bought and renovated an Italian restaurant with an event space for parties, but she says the project is not a full-time job for her. 

“I am now enjoying a quieter summer and thinking about the next step,” said Neven. 

“I've always looked for jobs with social impact and after this job I certainly will. It has to be something I can sink my teeth into, something with a long-term effect on society.”

Written by Helen Lyons