Belgium “abandoned” thousands of elderly in nursing homes during pandemic

Amnesty International denounced that the authorities of that country violated the rights of detained grandparents and workers in these care centers.


The Belgian authorities “abandoned” thousands of elderly people who died in residences during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Amnesty International after an investigation published on Monday 16-N describing “human rights violations” in the centers.

Belgium, one of the European countries most affected by the virus, has reported more than 531,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 14,400 associated deaths. In the first wave of the pandemic, last spring, the country of 11.5 million people recorded most of its deaths linked to the new virus in nursing homes.

61.3% of deaths from covid-19 registered in Belgium between March and October occurred in nursing homes, a figure that Amnesty International described as “staggering”. The authorities took too long to implement measures to protect employees and inmates, according to the organization, thus failing to protect their human rights.

One reason so many people died in the centers is that the patients were not transferred to hospitals for treatment, AI said.

“The results of our investigation allow us to affirm that (the residences) and their residents were abandoned by our authorities until this tragedy was publicly denounced and the first phase of the pandemic had passed,” said Philippe Hesman, Director of Amnesty International Belgium.

When the virus hit Europe hard in March, Belgium caught Europe off guard and unprepared, with a severe shortage of individual protection personnel. As infections spread rapidly, residences were overwhelmed and local authorities came to request the help of the armed forces.

Overwhelming crisis

Belgium had one of the highest death rates in the world during the first wave. But while nursing home employees were overwhelmed, the nation’s hospitals weathered the crisis and its intensive care units never filled its 2,000 beds.

Vincent Fredericq, General Secretary of the Femarbel Residential Federation, told Amnesty International that many residents in need of medical attention were ignored.

Everyone was shocked by the images of the Italian and Spanish hospitals, ”he said. “These situations had a great impact on our leaders, who from the beginning said that it was absolutely necessary to avoid overloading intensive care. The residences have been relegated to second place and their inmates and employees have been the victims ”.

AI based its research on statements from employees and inmates of nursing homes, workers of non-profit organizations that defend the rights of inmates and directors of centers.

The group also spoke with relatives of the elderly living in or who died in the pandemic. Most of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.

Premature deaths

Citing figures from Doctors Without Borders, the group indicated that only 57% of serious cases in nursing homes were transferred to hospitals due to “a harmful interpretation of triage recommendations.”

“As a result, some older people probably died prematurely,” AI said. “It took months until a circular explicitly indicated that transfer to the hospital was still possible, if it was done according to the interests and wishes of the patient, regardless of age.”

Maggie De Block, the former health minister who was in office in the early months of the pandemic, last month rejected allegations that nursing home patients had been denied access to hospitals.

“There was never a message, neither from the federal government nor from my regional colleagues, saying that we should not hospitalize people who need it, or that we can turn away the elderly or disabled,” he told the local network Rtbf.

The prime minister’s office did not initially respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Lack of training

More than half of the caregivers consulted in the survey said that they had not received training on how to use protective equipment, nor had they received sufficient information about the virus. AI noted that no routine diagnostic tests were introduced to workers until August, with only one check-up per month.

A residential inmate identified as Henriette told AI that every time a caregiver entered her room, she feared they would bring the virus with them.

The group also noted that restrictions on family visits had had a negative impact on the health of many inmates. Some family members told Amistía International that when they were allowed to return, they noticed that their loved ones had been neglected because the staff were overwhelmed.

“It was very difficult for my husband to eat alone. As time passed, he lost weight, ”said the wife of an inmate. “When I asked the staff about it, a caregiver told me ‘We can’t feed everyone every day.’


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