Belgium’s federal health minister Maggie De Block has admitted making mistakes in her early appreciation of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, but explained she was overwhelmed because she was working too hard.
As the government minister at the forefront of the country’s reaction to the worst pandemic of modern times, Flemish liberal De Block has been subject to harsh criticism, to the extent that it’s hard to believe now that not long before the Covid-19 disease first made its appearance, she was voted the most popular politician on both sides of the language divide.
In the RTBF discussion programme A Votre Avis, De Block was asked if she did not regret the decisions made in the early stages of the crisis, such as when the government was slow to rebuild stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital staff, after a warehouse full had been destroyed because it was past its use-by date.
“Those millions of masks were destroyed because they were out of date,” she explained. “There were plans to replenish stocks in hospitals – since I am only competent for hospitals – I had asked for a plan from the health ministry. But it was not possible to build up the stock at that time. If it were to be done again, obviously I would recommend masks. Today we have a large stock in case there is a second wave.”
The question of De Block’s limited authority – hospitals come under the federal government, while care homes are a regional competence – came up in the face of other criticism.
The director of one care home near Mons brought up the instruction sent to homes not to hospitalise residents regardless of their medical problems, which led to more than 50% of the country’s fatalities being attributed to care homes.
De Block pointed out that the responsibility for testing care home residents is a matter for the regions, not the federal authorities. When it appeared that the regions were not in a position to do so adequately, she said, the health and defence ministries offered to step in.
All along, Belgium has counted care home deaths as Covid-19 fatalities if the symptoms suggested an infection, without being confirmed by a test. That all-inclusive approach is what has seen Belgium declared as the company with the most per capita deaths.
As Belgium’s experts repeatedly point out, that sort of league table approach involves comparing apples and oranges as other countries count only confirmed cases, or discount care home fatalities altogether.
Asked if she is not ready no admit having made mistakes, De Block was clear.
“I accepted my responsibilities. As early as January, I put together a scientific committee. Then the situation worsened, and I was at the head of an inter-ministerial conference every morning from 8 am. I had the concertation committee, the kern, the ministers, the crisis unit. When you ask me ‘did you do anything wrong,’ yes, I did! Because I was hard at work. When you do nothing, you’re not in a position to do anything wrong.”
“I accept my mistakes,” she went on. “And there has been a lot of criticism, even for the responsibilities that are not mine. I understand the anger, I understand that people have had health problems and lost loved ones. I understand the misery.”