The sudden impact of COVID-19 may be an unprecedented crisis for members of my own Generation Z, but the world has a way of reminding us of the past — a history that tells the stories of the struggles, losses and determination of those who came before.
Often, the novel coronavirus pandemic is compared to World War II in terms of hardship. Both global phenomenons had heavy repercussions on the everyday lives of many people.
But in many ways, the two harrowing events couldn’t be more at odds with one another.
The lockdowns associated with COVID-19 are forcing people to endure months of isolation — which is made even more difficult by economic losses — as well as the removal of social and communal pillars.
During World War II, particularly in places that were hit the hardest, it was those pillars that gave people hope for the future.
Last October, a worker performing renovations on a Belgian church uncovered a message left in a matchbox by four men who painted the ceiling during the Nazi occupation of the country in 1941, according to The Daily Mirror.
The message was written in Dutch, but once translated into English, there is great wisdom found within it.
The note states plainly that the men’s lives have not been enjoyable, largely as a result of hunger and harsh labor caused by two hostile occupations less than thirty years apart.
“We have to tell the following generations that we didn’t have a happy life,” the note read. “We’ve lived through two wars. One in 1914 and one in 1940, that counts for something eh?
“We’re working here nearly starving from hunger, they extort us for mere cents for almost no food at all.”
However, the most striking part of the message is the hope expressed in it. The conclusion of the note advises future generations to enjoy life, be merry and keep a stable supply of necessities in case things start going south.
Message in a Matchbox: Warning from 1941 Found in Belgian Church https://t.co/Lxp37BthGq
— Vida News Ventura County (@VC_vidanews) November 24, 2020
Now, in 2021, Belgians are once again starting to lose hope. A seemingly endless series of restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 have robbed citizens of their community and livelihoods.
A coronavirus response info page revealed that in Belgium, among other restrictions, bars and restaurants are currently serving food and drinks to-go only, and Belgians are allowed to have close contact with only one person outside their household.
In response, Belgians took to the streets. The Brussels Times reported Monday that the Brussels police arrested about 500 people during a lockdown protest on Sunday, however they were all released.
A spokesman for the Brussels-Capital Ixelles police zone, Ilse Van de Keere, told the outlet that none of them concerned judicial arrests — those which occur when someone’s rights are stripped from them within a judicial investigation, based on a decision by the police or a prosecutor’s office.
“They were all administratively arrested, which means that we recorded their identities, and have drawn up an official report,” Van de Keere said. “After that, they were allowed to leave.”
The protest, according to Belgian authorities, was illegal.
But why arrest them at all? A few protesters possessed unusual weapons unlawfully, and they should be prosecuted, but it is entirely possible that many of those present were peacefully protesting.
Shouldn’t Belgium, a nominally free country, protect the right to protest as we do in America?
According to the Laws on the Right of Peaceful Assembly depository, Belgium’s 1831 Constitution says that “Belgians have the right to gather peaceably and without arms, in accordance with the laws that can regulate the exercise of this right, without submitting it to prior authorisation.”
However, Belgian law now allows for this right to be completely suspended in a public health emergency.
Moreover, the depository says, “Every gathering, demonstration, or procession in public space is subject to prior authorisation by the relevant mayor.”
To gather legally in Brussels, a request must be submitted at least 10 days prior to the intended event with the following criteria listed: The “name, address and phone number of the organisers, the topic of the event, the date and time of the planned gathering, the planned itinerary, the planned location and time of the event’s end, the evaluation of the number of participants, the intended means of transport, and the planned organisational measures.”
Those are some pretty heavy restrictions, and in the era of COVID-19, they serve to effectively render protests illegal.
How would those men who painted the church ceiling in 1941 react to all this mess?
How would they feel about the Belgian government instituting such broad restrictions on communal life — the very thing that kept them going during the Nazi occupation — and then proceed to forbid public outcry against it?
It’s impossible to say, but I think they would be very disturbed.
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