Teaching in Belgium amidst COVID-19

Dr. Sonia Vandepitte is a full professor in the Department of Translation, Interpreting and Communication at Ghent University, director of the Master of Translation programme and head of the English section. She teaches English, translation studies, translation into and from Dutch and has experience with coaching student translation companies. Publication topics include metonymic expressions in translation, translation competences, international translation training projects and translation and post-editing processes. She is currently involved in reading and translation processes of translation problem-solving. She is also investigating peer feedback and other collaborative forms of learning in translation training.

Sushil: Could we start with a question about academia and COVID-19? How would you describe the way university faculty in Belgium are managing their work in the middle of this major health crisis? What kind of online infrastructure was already in place at most Belgian universities that instructors could use in these circumstances? How do things in your university compare to what you have seen on media about the situation in the United States as far as the educational institutions are coping?

Sonia: Belgium has six main universities, so let me only describe the situation at my home university, which is Ghent University. Our rector sends us bilingual messages (in Dutch and English) that we are dealing with the situation very well and asks us to keep courage and remain patient. University staff with young children are probably the ones that find it hardest to cope with all the extra work that now falls upon them. Ghent University already had an extensive type of learning platform, to which we had just emigrated this academic year, but not all its possibilities had yet been implemented. So, our IC-staff did an amazing job in providing us with an MS Teams tool and a Virtual class tool that allows for chat and share documents in just one week. Our priority was education and only just recently have we been given the go-ahead to return to laboratories to continue research activities. In comparison to the U.S., I do not think there are many differences.

Sushil: What is your overall impression about the way the Belgian media is handling this crisis? How have language and communication faculty risen to this health challenge? What role are they playing in the public sphere?

Sonia: I’m afraid that language and communication faculty have kept a low profile in the media. There was one example that has struck me, though. After a public powerpoint presentation last week of our new Prime Minister (of a temporary minority government formed to deal with the Corona-crisis), many questions for clarity had come from the public and one newspaper opinion article presented the same information entitled What if Wilmès’s powerpoint presentation had been a speech. This would actually be wonderful materials for a class exercise on different text types.

Sushil: How has COVID-19 affected the work routine beyond the academia in Belgium? How is the Belgian workplace adapting to the current situation?

Sonia: The COVID-19 crisis has led to a fairly extensive lockdown of all activities. Telework is the norm and if that cannot be provided companies can apply for the special corona subsidies. All shops have to close down except for supermarkets, and travel is forbidden unless you have a certificate showing that your job was essential to go through the Corona-crisis (food suppliers, health). Public transport no longer offers its services. All open-air activities are cancelled.

Tomorrow we’ll start stage 1a of the relaxation of measures: B-to-B business can be started again, our dense public transport network will start its activities again with set of conditions (people need to wear mouth masks, for instance), and shops that sell materials necessary to make mouth masks can open their doors again.

Sushil: You are familiar with the research and teaching scene in the United States. Could you describe how the distribution of health and safety information is different in Belgium from the United States? With a state-run health care system and universal health insurance, do public health workers and officials play a larger role in disseminating health information?

Sonia: I think that our university health and safety information is less explicit than that in the U.S., although we are following a trend of communicating these issues more explicitly with, for instance, offers of training sessions on first-aid and fire prevention to university staff.

As for our health-care system, it is run by the state in the sense that much of it is financed by tax payers, but there is a wide range of health insurance funds that bring the services to the people. So, yes, we do hear a fair number of health experts, public health workers and officials disseminating health information. In fact, some people say that the scientists are being listened to more carefully than the government representatives these days. And some do this in a tone that finally, scientists are being respected again, while others cast it in a negative light. There seems to be some power struggle in getting attention from the media.

Sushil: Power struggle between whom?

Sonia: It is a struggle for respect, for being listened to in the midst of the chaos of (fake) news items that people can find online these days. And some politicians who want give more freedoms to the population don’t like it when scientists and scholars don’t want to give them the go-ahead.

Sushil: Could you speak about two or three specific government initiatives aimed at communicating information about COVID-19 in Belgium? What modalities are being engaged? And, besides professional media, who else is being asked to step forward and contribute to this effort?

Sonia: There are simple short messages on the radio and television and in newspapers and on billboards in the streets, for instance: I do the check, check, check. I wash my hands. Check. I stay at home and keep a distance of 1.5m if I do need to go out. Check. I do not visit the elderly. Check. ( https://www.vlaanderen.be/nieuwsberichten/ikredlevens-doe-de-check-check-check). There is also a quadrilingual website (https://www.info-coronavirus.be/nl/).

And before this crisis, after the bomb explosions in Brussels Airport, the authorities had also set up a mailing list, called BE.ALERT, which spreads short messages with the basic measures and links to the websites above.

Sushil: We have now lived through the COVID-19 crisis for a couple of months. As a European communication expert, how would you assess the way public media around the world has performed so far? Where has it been successful in communicating the challenges we face?

Sonia: I think it has been fairly successful in its communication, since our death rate figures show a decreasing trend. In connection with our figures, perhaps this is something that many people probably do not know. In contrast to most countries abroad (our neighbors, but also the U.S.), the Belgian scientists include ALL deaths in these figures: even the cases where COVID-19 had not been officially attested, even all deaths from senior citizen institutions and organizations. If we did not do that, our figures would resemble those of The Netherlands and Germany.

Sushil: What could be done differently by media?

Sonia: I feel that the main Flemish radio news channel mediates between politicians and the general public, who are sending their questions, requests, demands, complaints and so on to the radio. This is a positive thing, but if they express views that do not take into account, for instance, that a democratic society needs time to make the best decision, and adopt an accusatory tone towards our National Security Council, I would like them to make clear that this is not their own view. Those questions create an atmosphere of distrust which we need to reduce: in fact, such accusatory questions then lead to a reduction of communication , which is something we need to avoid at all cost.

Sushil: In your opinion, what role do business and professional communication faculty have to play in such a crisis?

Sonia: I’m sorry, but I cannot answer that question as a language and translation professional. As a world citizen, however, there is a great opportunity for business and professional communication faculty to offer their knowledge and services, and I hope that the communication faculty are applying for the specific corona-research funding that the university has set aside. I recently saw this multilingual terminology database related to COVID-19 (https://www.lexonomy.eu/ec25mm79/), which I think is a nice example of how terminologists can contribute.

Sushil: How can we incorporate the topic of COVID-19 in our teaching so that we could prepare our students to deal with the current situation more effectively?

Sonia: Our translation students today do not wish to deal with texts on COVID-19 very much and prefer to read texts that give them some more positive thoughts. So, this is a hard question. Guidelines on how to communicate with one another online, however, are very useful, though.

Sushil: Interesting that you mention “guidelines”. In my human-centered design course earlier this term, I had my students analyze “instructions” for making masks from France, India, Spain, and the United States put out by four very different organizations—a hospital, a government-sponsored scientific authority, a group of product standards organizations, and the Center for Communicative Diseases here in this country. I’m curious if any Belgian organization has published instructions for making masks for public, or medical use.

Sonia: Definitely, the government’s official quadrilingual website has them (https://www.info-coronavirus.be/en/facemask/).

Sushil: What other teaching tips do you have for business and professional communication faculty at this time who might be reading this interview?

Sonia: You may already have this type of class, but I’m thinking of how to interview people with a tone that is not the ‘I’m-happy-all-the-time-and-could-sing-for-joy’ tone that radio presenters usually use to catch attention. Talking about death needs a neutral tone. Or how to organize much disparate information for many types of people in clear sections, instead of just putting a FAQ on a website. Or how to make sure that people that contact a website really get the latest news when they’re on the home page.

Sushil: You have highlighted some critical areas for curricular development. I don’t think that such courses are being offered unless our readers inform us differently when they read this interview. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview at this very busy time.

Sonia: Thank you for inviting me to this interview.

Recommended Citation: Sushil Oswal with Sonia Vandepitte. (2020). Teaching in Belgium amidst COVID-19. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.