Belgium's virus 'hero' defends straight talk despite death threats


Leuven (Belgium) (AFP)

Brushing off death threats, the face of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in Belgium battles on despite living under police protection after attacks on social media.

Marc Van Ranst is Dutch-speaking Belgium's best known virologist. He speaks bluntly, delivering the tough messages that politicians would rather be said with finesse or not at all.

Opening borders "is dangerous", stay away from port city Antwerp, cancel summer plans: the virologist never shies from upbraiding Belgians over the airwaves -- or his Twitter account.

In Belgium, the coronavirus has already caused nearly 10,000 deaths -- one of the highest mortality rates in the world when compared with its population of about 11.5 million people.

At present, the epidemic is regaining steam with authorities registering around 800 new infections per day, which Van Ranst is concerned about.

In person, Van Ranst looks every inch a researcher.

Dressed in his usual V-neck sweater, the Antwerp native comes off as professorial, slightly dishevelled, and with a jovial demeanour that can quickly turn to the tight frown of someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

Constantly in the spotlight since the pandemic engulfed Belgium, his celebrity drew the furore of the Flemish nationalists and far-right, the dominant political current in Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Through lawsuits, Twitter clashes and now death threats, Van Ranst takes his role in Belgian society in stride, convinced that his problems are due less to the health crisis and more to his politics.

"They have everything to do with the fact that whenever I'm confronted with racism or xenophobia, I will react. The right wing parties, they hate me"," he told AFP, not hiding his left-wing leanings.

- 'Sick and tired' -

Van Ranst, 55, spoke to AFP at his workplace, the Riga Institute of the University of Leuven, one of Europe's top research universities.

To his supporters, Van Ranst is seen as an important weapon against the far right and anti-mask protesters.

He has even been parodied as a superhero in a viral online video in which a fake Van Ranst machine-guns a barbecue held by nationalists who are violating lockdown measures.

A right-wing bete noir, in mid-August Van Ranst was the rallying cry at one of the movement's protests, which accused him of instigating a "corona circus" of unnecessary anti-virus rules.

The participants, numbering several hundred that Sunday in Brussels, were invited to sign a letter demanding his resignation from the college of experts advising the government on the health crisis.

The protest was small, but Van Ranst said he knows public resolve to fight the virus is waning and that "populist views" are fuelling defiance.

"Anyone who says we want to get rid of the masks and get rid of the bubble of five (the ceiling of close contacts allowed for each household) will generate a lot of interest, and I can completely understand that," he said.

"We might get sick and tired of the virus, the problem is that the virus does not get sick and tired of us. It still infects us like it loved to do in March," the virologist continued.

True to form, Van Ranst turned to Twitter to criticise the "slow motion" government for its lack of response to the latest upsurge in cases.

Belgium is heading for "catastrophe", he thundered in a tweet.