Report: Belgian nursing homes failed patients amid pandemic

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FILE - In this Thursday, July 9, 2020 file photo, nurse Jean-Claude Feda, right, and trainee Lyson Rousseau, center, both wearing face masks, to protect against the spread of coronavirus, measure the blood pressure of resident Odette Defraigne-Schmit at CHC Liege Mativa home for elderly people in Liege, BelgiumAuthorities in Belgium fear another deadly wave of coronavirus cases could soon hit care homes as the country confronts the risk of seeing its hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, leading them to restrict nursing home visits. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

BRUSSELS – Belgian authorities “abandoned” thousands of elderly people who died in nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic and did not seek hospital treatment for many who were infected, violating their human rights, Amnesty International said in an investigation published Monday.

One of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, Belgium has reported more than 531,000 confirmed virus cases and more than 14,400 deaths linked to the coronavirus. During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, the European nation of 11.5 million people recorded a majority of its COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes.

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

Amnesty International said one of the reasons so many people died in nursing homes is because infected residents 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 Europe 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, nursing homes were quickly overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of contamination as local authorities even requested the help of Belgian armed forces to cope.

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 2,000-bed capacity. Vincent Fredericq, the general secretary of the care homes federation Femarbel, told Amnesty International that many residents in need of medical assistance 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.”