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AI re­port says care homes poli­cies vi­o­lated hu­man rights in Bel­gium

- By Sa­muel Pe­tre­quin Health Conditions · Crime · Society · Human Rights · Infectious Diseases · Amnesty International · Belgium · Medecins Sans Frontieres

BRUS­SELS—AMNESTY In­ter­na­tional said Bel­gium au­thor­i­ties “aban­doned” thou­sands of el­derly peo­ple who died in nurs­ing homes dur­ing the coron­avirus pan­demic fol­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished on Mon­day go­ing through a se­ries of in­ad­e­qua­cies de­scribed by the group as “hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions.”

One of the hard­est-hit coun­tries in Europe, Bel­gium has re­ported more than 531,000 con­firmed virus cases and more than 14,000 deaths linked to the coron­avirus. Dur­ing the first wave of the pan­demic last spring, the coun­try of 11.5 mil­lion peo­ple recorded a ma­jor­ity of its Covid-19-re­lated deaths in care homes.

Be­tween March and Oc­to­ber, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said “a stag­ger­ing” 61.3 per­cent of all Covid-19 deaths in Bel­gium took place in care homes. The group said au­thor­i­ties weren’t quick enough in im­ple­ment­ing mea­sures to pro­tect care home res­i­dents and staff dur­ing this pe­riod, hence fail­ing to pro­tect their hu­man rights.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said one of the rea­sons so many peo­ple died in homes is be­cause res­i­dents in­fected by the deadly virus weren’t trans­ferred to hospi­tals to re­ceive treat­ment.

“The re­sults of our in­ves­ti­ga­tion al­low us to af­firm that [care homes] and their res­i­dents were aban­doned by our au­thor­i­ties un­til this tragedy was pub­licly de­nounced, and the worst of the first phase of the pan­demic was over,” said Philippe Hens­mans, the di­rec­tor of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional Bel­gium.

When the virus struck Eu

rope hard in March, Bel­gium was caught off guard and un­pre­pared, faced with a crit­i­cal short­age of per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment. As in­fec­tions surged across the coun­try, care homes were quickly over­whelmed by the fre­netic pace of con­tam­i­na­tion as lo­cal au­thor­i­ties even re­quested the sup­port of Bel­gian armed forces to tackle the wor­ry­ing sit­u­a­tion.

Bel­gium had one of the high­est death rates world­wide dur­ing the first wave. But while nurs­ing home staff was over­whelmed, the coun­try’s hospi­tals weath­ered the cri­sis as their in­ten­sive care units never reached their 2,000bed ca­pac­ity. Vin­cent Fred­er­icq, the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the care homes fed­er­a­tion Fe­mar­bel, told Amnesty In­ter­na­tional that many res­i­dents in need of med­i­cal as­sis

tance were left be­hind.

“Ev­ery­one was struck by the im­ages of the Ital­ian and Span­ish hospi­tals,” he said. “These sit­u­a­tions had a great im­pact on our fed­eral de­ci­sion-mak­ers, who said from the out­set that it was ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to avoid over­load­ing in­ten­sive care. Nurs­ing homes have been rel­e­gated to sec­ond line and res­i­dents and staff have been the vic­tims.”

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional based its in­ves­ti­ga­tion on tes­ti­monies from care home res­i­dents and staff mem­bers, em­ploy­ees of non­govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions de­fend­ing res­i­dents’ rights and di­rec­tors of nurs­ing homes. The group also spoke with fam­i­lies of el­derly peo­ple cur­rently liv­ing in homes or de­ceased dur­ing the pan­demic. Most of the peo­ple in­ter­viewed asked to re­main anony­mous so that they could speak freely.

Quot­ing fig­ures re­leased by Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, the group said only 57 per­cent of se­ri­ous cases in care homes were trans­ferred to hospi­tals be­cause of “harm­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion of sort­ing guide­lines.”

“Some older peo­ple have prob­a­bly died pre­ma­turely as a re­sult,” Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said. “It took months be­fore a cir­cu­lar ex­plic­itly stated that trans­fer to hospi­tal was still pos­si­ble, if it was in ac­cor­dance with the pa­tient’s in­ter­ests and wishes, re­gard­less of age.”

Mag­gie de Block, the for­mer Bel­gian health min­is­ter who was in charge dur­ing the early months of the pan­demic, re­futed last month ac­cu­sa­tions that ac­cess to hospi­tals was de­nied to nurs­ing homes res­i­dents.

“There has never been a mes­sage ei­ther from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or from my re­gional col­leagues say­ing that we should not hos­pi­tal­ize peo­ple who need it, or that we can refuse el­derly or dis­abled peo­ple,” she told lo­cal me­dia RTBF.

The prime min­is­ter’s of­fice didn’t im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment from The As­so­ci­ated Press.

More than half of the care providers quizzed dur­ing the group’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion said they didn’t re­ceive train­ing on how to use pro­tec­tive equip­ment and weren’t suf­fi­ciently in­formed about the virus. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said sys­tem­atic test­ing of em­ploy­ees wasn’t in­tro­duced be­fore Au­gust, with only one test per month.

“Ev­ery time a care worker came into my room to help me wash my­self, I was afraid. I won­dered if Covid was com­ing in with her,” a nurs­ing home res­i­dent iden­ti­fied as Hen­ri­ette told Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

 ?? AP PHOTO/ VIR­GINIA MAYO ?? A HEALTH-CARE worker holds the hand of a res­i­dent at the CHC nurs­ing home in Lan­denne, Bel­gium, on Novem­ber 4, 2020. Bel­gium, pro­por­tion­ally still the worst hit na­tion in Europe when it comes to coron­avirus cases, said there were in­creas­ing signs that a turn­ing point in the cri­sis was draw­ing close. The Bel­gian Army has been de­ployed to help sev­eral hard-hit ar­eas in the coun­try in­clud­ing nurs­ing homes.
AP PHOTO/ VIR­GINIA MAYO A HEALTH-CARE worker holds the hand of a res­i­dent at the CHC nurs­ing home in Lan­denne, Bel­gium, on Novem­ber 4, 2020. Bel­gium, pro­por­tion­ally still the worst hit na­tion in Europe when it comes to coron­avirus cases, said there were in­creas­ing signs that a turn­ing point in the cri­sis was draw­ing close. The Bel­gian Army has been de­ployed to help sev­eral hard-hit ar­eas in the coun­try in­clud­ing nurs­ing homes.

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