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Dispatches From Belgium: The Change That No One Saw Coming

Huge crowds in the stands at KRC Genk during a game earlier this year

A couple of weeks ago, the sound of my alarm was the first thing I heard every morning before getting out of bed to start my daily routine. A rushed breakfast, a quick shower and dressing up in a hurry to avoid being late to work or an appointment. Depending on my destination, I’d use my car or public transport. Buses are slightly slower and were crowded with students going to or from school or elderly people visiting town markets. The advantage, however, was that there was no need to endlessly search for an empty (and expensive) parking spot in the city centres. I could never avoid traffic, whichever option I chose. While commuting, I would notice how empty the pavements and bike lanes were in comparison to the streets that were packed with cars and trucks.

Towards the end of the day, I would pass by the shop for groceries, have an early dinner and prepare for football training. Training was more than just one and a half-hour of exercise. It was a social gathering where most players would arrive early and leave late, very late. Players easily stayed until 2 or 3 am, spending time talking, dancing, singing and joking around together. They would spend their money on snacks and drinks. It was an escape from the serious and strict lives they sometimes led, an opportunity to partially go back to their childhood and enjoy the game they have always loved and everything that came with it.

While weekdays had very strict and repetitive schedules, weekends had more freedom and variety. Saturday mornings were for brunches and strolling around the shopping malls. Afternoons were spent in the company of friends or family in cosy restaurants or at home. At night, thousands of people visited cinemas, trendy bars or sports venues to support their favourite team.

A few weeks later everything changed. Drastically.

Public transport has been reduced to a minimum, leaving stations empty.
Bars and restaurants have to seal their terraces, preventing people to come together or stay in one place
Bars and restaurants have to seal their terraces, preventing people from coming together or staying in one place.

The advent of COVID-19 has come with the restriction of movement in the country, manifesting in the desertion of popular places, closure of our favourite barber shops, restaurants and bars. Our city centres and malls, usually vibrant and lively places, are now awkwardly silent and empty.

We are in lockdown.

Bound to our houses, interaction with neighbours has become foreign and the entire country has been turned into a shell, hermetically shielding us from any potential harm from the outside world.

At first glance, this appears to be a loss for everyone. A staggering blow has been dealt to the economy, an entire education system is faltering, individual plans and goals seem to have disappeared like snow in the sun, lives have been lost. Everyone has been affected by the virus, whether directly or indirectly. But there are two sides to every story and each disadvantage comes with advantages.

The silver lining

The once empty pavements and bicycle lanes are being used by pedestrians and cyclists in every village. Streets are teeming with people who enjoy the fresh outdoors – without getting too close to each other. Instead of sitting behind a screen in a dusty office for hours, people are getting out and enjoying nature. City centres have been deserted and people are rediscovering their neighbourhoods. Mothers are riding bikes with their daughters and fathers are hiking with their sons in wonderful green places, just a few minutes from home. They are discovering magical lakes, breathing forests and breath-taking views. Back home, families have started baking cakes, solving puzzles and doing chores together.

People are rediscovering natural, green zones in the proximity of their houses.

Maybe the virus is not a punishment but rather a warning from nature, telling us to take it easy. A warning from the planet too, to remind us that we all need a break.

Being at home makes us aware of the importance of talking to each other, as a family. In addition, we rediscover the pleasure of a personal conversation instead of always staring forward at the screen of our smartphone.

Following the rules shouldn’t necessarily be a burden. It is an opportunity to spend quality time with your family members, to discover new passions and interests and to rediscover your neighbourhood. Set your own personal goals and see how you will come out stronger.

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