Belgium destroyed millions of mouth masks ahead of outbreak

Belgium destroyed millions of mouth masks ahead of outbreak
Mouth masks arriving in Liège. © Belga

Belgium's current health ministry destroyed millions of mouth masks it had in a strategic reserve stock because they reached their expiration date, but failed to replace them.

32 million surgical masks and 6 million FFP2 respirator masks —currently in global shortage amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic—were destroyed because they had reached their expiration date and become "unusable."

A report of the destruction order, obtained by Francophone daily Le Vif, showed that the cabinet of Health Minister Maggie De Block then chose not to replace the masks, citing concerns about the use of taxpayer money.

The reserve stock of masks had originally been bought in 2006 by then-health minister Rudy Demotte, and were replaced in 2009 by his successor Laurette Onkelinx for a cost of €9 million, as the world braced for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic.

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Citing a report by Belgium's Risk Management Group (RMG), an advisory body and one of the current coordinators of Belgium's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Le Vif said that the masks were destroyed last year.

But De Block's cabinet contradicted the RMG's assessment and said that the order for their destruction was given in 2017.

"The old strategic stock was (...) not in good conditions and the masks had thus become unusable," the cabinet told Le Vif, which noted that the health ministry, therefore, had had "three years, instead of one, to replenish the stock."

De Block's cabinet said the reasons behind the choice not to replace the destroyed mask stock were "complex" and that the cabinet was awaiting a "strategic" plan in order to not be wasteful about taxpayer money.

"[The decision] is obviously very complex, and it needs a lot more time... but buying masks without having a plan amounts to wasting taxpayer's money," the cabinet told Le Vif.

"We asked the public health service (SPF Santé) for a new strategic plan —not just a plan to quickly buy masks which would have had to be destroyed some years later— but for a comprehensive solution in order to avoid repeating past mistakes."

As public concern saw commercial mouth masks stocks dwindle and industrial production fall, hospitals, virologists and health workers rushing to contain the coronavirus pandemic in Belgium have called on the public to donate their masks to nearby hospitals.

Last week, Chinese online retail giant Alibaba delivered a donation of millions of mouth masks to Belgium, where it is looking to set its European hub in the city of Liège.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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