COVID19 update, June 13, 2020: Belgium takes a breather; the Jewish community of Antwerp; High-fructose corn syrup


(1) Belgium for a stretch has had the highest per capita COVID19 mortality in the world (except for the microstate of San Marino — beware of statistics of small numbers), with almost 10,000 dead out of a population of about 11 million. But now it seems to have turned the corner at last—daily dead are in the 10 range, down from 2-300 at the peak of the epidemic. 


So the chair of the Corona Committee, virologist Steven De Gucht, gave his last of 54 press conferences for now, looking back at the past three months. “As quickly as the dark clouds gather, just as quickly can the sun break through again,’ Van Gucht said somewhat emotionally. This is the last press conference. We can let go of the reins a little. We’ve grabbed the virus by the neck and extinguished fires. It is clear that nature can be very harsh.” Future updates will be via weekly press releases, at least until (if ever) there is a second wave.

Current COVID19 measures are detailed on a dedicated website in four languages, including in (fairly idiomatic) English. At this point, all stores are open (night stores until 1am), as are (with capacity restrictions) restaurants with table service and bars. Sports teams, musical ensembles, and theater group may practice but not yet perform for an audience: starting July 1, audiences of up to 200 are permitted (which works for the local equivalent of off-Broadway theater and for junior league soccer teams). 

(2) Also in Belgium, in an area about six square blocks by the Antwerp railway station, is the Diamond District, home to about 20,000 mostly Orthodox or Chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Jews. This community has given Antwerp the nickname ‘Jerusalem on the Scheldt’ in some circles. The Jerusalem Post looks at how this community has weathered the COVID19 storm: fairly well, all told. “The community projected in March that 85% of its members could contract the coronavirus because of its close conditions and frequent social interactions, and that over 500 could die. A communal taboo about dealing with the virus, which some labeled as a scourge of the secular world, added to the danger.” In the event, only 11 (eleven) community members succumbed to the virus, all elderly and/or with major pre-existing conditions. 


The community […] at first downplayed the danger of the virus […] but […]  took swift action following the death rate projection, implementing strict social distancing measures that included the closure of all synagogues on March 13 — five days before federal authorities imposed a nationwide lockdown. 
“It’s just a few days, but with a pandemic that grows exponentially it was a crucial early step,” said [Shlomo] Stroh, who was involved in the decision-making process led by the city’s chief rabbi, Aaron Schiff, and the city’s beit din, or rabbinical court. 

Getting the Orthodox Jewish community of Antwerp to adhere to social distancing was a “gradual process,” according to Claude Marinower, an alderman in charge of the city government’s communications efforts, among other portfolios. 
“At first there was some pushback” from some community members against the closure of synagogues, said Marinower, who is Jewish but is not Orthodox. But “there was more cooperation as the dimensions of the pandemic emerged — and especially in Belgium, where about 10,000 people have died of the coronavirus.” 
“When rabbis issued strong instructions against gatherings, it was accepted by all,” Marinower said.
Michael Freilich, an Orthodox Jewish lawmaker from Antwerp who serves in the federal parliament, also attributed the low death rate among Jews to a combination of rabbinical leadership and authorities’ strict enforcement. Together, he told JTA, “it meant we were saved from disaster.”

With the fairly narrow streets inside the district, a creative solution to communal prayer was found: a cantor would lead the service from the street and worshipers would join in from the balconies. Some non-Jewish neighbors lodged police complaints about the noise, but others welcomed the relief from the silence during the lockdown as well as “the chance to hear what goes on inside the synagogues”. (I would imagine that anybody who has serious issues with Jews would not voluntarily live in an area of Antwerp that is best described as an urban shtetl.)


(3) Roger Seheult MD has videoblogged extensively on the benefits of vitamin D and zinc for the immune system generally and during the COVID-19 epidemic in particular, as well as the value of the antioxidant and mucolytic NAC (N-acetylcysteine) as a food supplement.  This time, however, he talks about something to avoid for a change: fructose and specifically high-fructose corn syrup.


Diabetes prevalence was 20% higher in countries with higher availability of HFCS compared to countries with low availability, and these differences were retained or strengthened after adjusting for country-level estimates of body mass index (BMI), population and gross domestic product (adjusted diabetes prevalence=8.0 vs. 6.7%, p=0.03; fasting plasma glucose=5.34 vs. 5.22 mmol/L, p=0.03) despite similarities in obesity and total sugar and calorie availability. These results suggest that countries with higher availability of HFCS have a higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes independent of obesity.

And yes, much of it is about type 2 diabetes (a major risk factor with COVID-19) but there’s more to the story. Go watch the whole video.



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