When criticism of top Covid-19 advisers turns into a terror campaign

Hague Letter: Leading Dutch and Belgian virologists have had to face sinister threats

As European countries take the first cautious steps out of lockdown, what would you imagine coronavirus has left as its common legacy between low-country neighbours Belgium and the Netherlands? A new camaraderie, perhaps?

Bizarrely, what the two countries share today is that their most eminent virologists are living in fear. In Belgium, Marc van Ranst (55) is in hiding with his family in a "safe house", while in the Netherlands, Jaap van Dissel (64) has been the victim of a hate campaign claiming he's a paedophile.

Up to last week it would have been no contest as to which country had the more extraordinary of the two stories. In a world where bizarre has become the norm, it was Belgium by a country mile.

That’s where a nationwide manhunt has been going on for a former special forces solider who disappeared in the middle of last month when it was revealed that he’d allegedly made threats against Prof van Ranst, who is the Belgian government’s top adviser on combating Covid-19.

At last count, 250 police officers and 150 soldiers were combing Hoge Kempen national park near the Dutch border, where 46-year-old Jurgen Conings – a veteran of Afghanistan – is believed to have gone to ground, heavily armed, with a submachine gun among other weapons.

Before he went “off grid”, Conings – well known to army colleagues for his far-right leanings – wrote a letter to his girlfriend lamenting that he could “no longer live in a society where politicians and virologists have taken everything away from us”.

Not one for subtlety, he also tweeted to his followers: “Who has Van Ranst’s address?”

Unlikely tale

Twitter also played a role in the next stage of this unlikely tale. As it happens, both Van Ranst and Willem Engel, leader of the Dutch anti-vaccination group Viruswaarheid (Virus Truth), are also on Twitter – and that's where their paths crossed for the first time as the Conings story unfolded.

Noting that Van Ranst and his family were being forced to hide away, Engels tweeted unsympathetically that the scientist was really the author of his own misfortune because, as a leading virologist working for the government, he’d been complicit in sowing “the pandemic of fear”.

Quick as a flash, noting that Engels is a dance teacher by profession, Van Ranst shot back: “When there’s a salsa pandemic, I’ll listen to you with great pleasure. But at this moment I don’t give a flying f**k what you have to say, and nobody in the Netherlands should either.”

Van Ranst tagged his tweet #salsapandemie (#salsapandemic) and it went viral immediately, causing a sensation and, it has to be said, not a little welcome hilarity to boot.

One of those watching online was Dutch businessman Alexander Klöpping, who was so impressed he raised €25,000 in less than a day to have the Twitter exchange reproduced on 2,000 advertising screens across the Netherlands – from motorways to petrol stations, bus stops to Schiphol Airport.

Van Ranst was a hero who deserved the widest possible support against attempts to intimidate him, said Klöpping, and that meant having the Twitter thread read, unadulterated, as often as possible.

Not alone

That wasn’t the end, however. This was a tale of two virologists, and it transpired that Marc van Ranst was not alone in facing potentially life-changing threats. The same applied to his opposite number in the Netherlands, Jaap van Dissel, chair of the government’s Outbreak Management Team.

This time, however, there was no renegade gunman involved. Instead, the perpetrators were two women in their 50s who appear to have been part of wider groups, and who were charged, hauled into court, and promptly jailed.

The first, aged 54, was given eight weeks, four of them suspended, for incitement, after sharing Prof van Dissel’s home address on Telegram and urging followers to “bring bricks to his birthday”. Police say they’re still investigating the Telegram group.

The second woman, aged 53, was given six weeks, four suspended, for circulating a vicious video stating that Van Dissel was a paedophile.

It’s nothing new that the Netherlands is a fragmented society. It was evident again in the March election that still hasn’t produced a government. It has typically overcome those divisions using the homegrown tried-and-tested “polder model”, where endless argument finally yields compromise.

Perhaps it’s a post-Covid reality faced even by prosperous European countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium that science has now reverted to a matter of tribal belief – and that, as ever when it comes to belief, compromise is a dirty word.