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Belgium ‘abandoned’ old people’s homes: Amnesty

Belgium’s retirement homes have been ignored in the Covid-19 pandemic, effectively “abandoned” by authorities who trampled their residents’ human rights, Amnesty International alleged in a report on Monday.

The organisation estimates that more than 60 percent of Belgium’s 14,000 Covid-19 deaths have occurred in old people’s homes, in a country that counts among the world’s worst for its death rate from the virus.

A similar proportion has been advanced by the Belgian branch of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), but the Belgian government gives a figure of 43 percent.

Amnesty said chronic funding shortfalls, fragmented access to healthcare, lack of protective gear for staff, restrictions on visitors and refusals by hospitals to take sick elderly patients had all contributed to the situation in retirement homes.

Based on more than 50 accounts from residents, their family members and managers and staff in the homes, Amnesty asserted that rights to life, to health and to non-discrimination were all violated.

In some cases, it says, residents suffered poor sanitary standards in their rooms, and even in some cases lack of water and food.

Some accounts spoke of residents with dementia being subjected to reinforced mechanical or chemical restraints.

And the lack of social contact imposed in the first wave earlier this year led to “spectacular cognitive decline” in certain residents, the report said.

Amnesty called for the regional authorities responsible for old people’s homes to make sure regular Covid-19 tests were accessible for staff and residents.

It said the Belgian government’s decision last month to suspend testing for all but those with Covid-19 symptoms amounted to a violation of its obligation to protect citizens’ lives and health.

The government cut back its testing after labs became overwhelmed by the number of people looking to get swabbed, as a second wave of the pandemic hit a peak in the country.

Four weeks into a partial lockdown, Belgium has managed to bring its average daily number of virus infections down to around 5,000, a quarter of what it was seeing in late October.

Hospital admissions and deaths from the disease also look to be slowing, though not as significantly.

Since the start of the pandemic, Belgium has recorded 536,000 cases of infection.

As of Monday, it has had 14,421 deaths — more than half of whom were aged 85 and over.