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Belgium in Brief: The Mask Dilemma

Credit: Belga

It seems that every day Belgium faces a new debate, a new concern, and a new piece of information ever so slightly out of grasp. Today, face masks seem to be taking that honour.

On Friday, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès promised that the government would make sure every person in the country would be provided with at least one reusable fabric mask. Not long after, however, it turns out this could be fundamentally impossible.

This potential lack of masks sits at odds with the strong recommendation that they should be used in public places from 4 May. Add to this the fact that Belgian public transport companies have said they will strictly enforce the wearing of face masks, and you have a situation with no clear outcome as of yet.

So watch this space.

For now, let’s have a look at the news. Contact tracing takes the forefront, public transport restarts, and the latest figures.

With so much information, and so little time to catch up before it potentially changes again, here are some of the top stories from around the country to get you up to speed.

Belgium in Brief is a free daily roundup of the top stories to get you through your lunch break conversations. To receive it straight to your inbox every day, sign up below:

1. Coronavirus: 134 new deaths, 123 hospital admissions in Belgium

647 new people have tested positive for the new coronavirus (Covid-19) in Belgium, confirmed the Federal Public Health Service during a press conference on Tuesday.

This brings the total number of cases in Belgium, since the beginning of the pandemic, to 47,334. The total reflects all people in Belgium who have been infected, and includes confirmed active cases as well as patients who have since recovered, or died from the consequences of the virus.

215 of the newly-infected people live in Flanders, 306 live in Wallonia, and 117 live in Brussels. The FPS does not yet have further information on the place of residence of 9 other people. Read more.

2. Face masks ‘give false sense of security,’ says De Block

Wearing a face mask in public gives a false sense of security, stressed Federal Minister for Public Health Maggie De Block.

Belgium’s National Security Council announced on Friday that face masks will become mandatory on public transport, and “strongly recommended” in other public places from 4 May. However, Federal Justice Minister Koen Geens said that it would not be manageable to provide every citizen with a mask by that date.

On Monday, De Block stressed that only wearing a face mask will not stop the coronavirus from spreading.

“Keeping your distance and washing your hands is much more important. We have always said that and it will stay that way,” she told VRT. “A mask is not going to stop the virus, but it is an extra barrier. Any barrier will do if we cannot keep the necessary distance from others, but masks give a false sense of security,” De Block added. Read more.

3. Coronavirus continues to plague understaffed nursing home in Brussels

Regional authorities are considering appointing a crisis manager to a private Brussels nursing home ravaged by the coronavirus.

The Résidence Archambeau nursing home in Jette has already registered 20 deaths linked to coronavirus, according to Bruzz.

“Not all of [the deaths] can be linked to the coronavirus,” Pascal Devos, spokesman for Brussels Health Minister Alain Maron said, adding that “severe diarrhoea” had also plagued residents.

Suspected Covid-19 deaths from nursing homes are added into Belgium’s official death toll in an effort by health officials to avoid a lack of comprehensive testing to lead to an underestimation of the pandemic’s death toll in the country. Read more.

4. Covid-19 should be recognised as a work-related illness, trade union says

The FGTB/ABVV trade union wants to make the disease caused by coronavirus recognisable as a work-related illness.

The trade union’s push to get the disease at the heart of the current pandemic recognised as an occupational illness comes as companies ready preparations to return to work after lockdown regulations are lifted.

The union said that the guidebooks rolled out by a number of companies in view of the reopening of all business from 11 May were insufficient to ensure worker protection. Read more.

5. Public transport will strictly enforce face masks from 4 May

The Belgian public transport companies De Lijn, STIB and SNCB will strictly enforce the wearing of face masks from 4 May, despite the possible shortage as the authorities cannot provide them in time.

The wearing of face masks will become mandatory in all situations where the 1.5 metres social distance cannot be maintained, such as on public transport and on stations, from 4 May.

To make sure everyone complies with this measure, the National Security Council on Friday announced that the government would ensure that every citizen would be given “at least one standard fabric face mask, free of charge, that completely covers the mouth and nose” as well as two filters to put in the masks. Read more.

6. Contact tracing will start as soon as possible

When lifting the lockdown restrictions, Belgium will have to increase testing and start contact tracing.

The issue of contact tracing, which until now has been missing in the Belgian measures to fight the coronavirus, was mentioned as the last point in the decision taken by the National Security Council on Friday (24 April) on the gradual lifting of restrictions (deconfinement) during May and June.

Under “conditions for success”, the decision states that to ensure deconfinement in the best possible conditions, testing and tracing will play a major role. “For tracing, a coordinated strategy between regions and communities will be implemented, with the support of federal experts.”

“Contact tracing should start already in May, as soon as possible,” said professor Steven Van Gucht, spokesperson of Sciensano, to The Brussels Times. “We intend to set up call centres with 2,000 staff.” Read more.

7. Not all waste will be collected separately in Brussels this week

The Brussels garbage collection service, Bruxelles-Propreté will only collect white, yellow and blue garbage bags separately in seven municipalities this week because of the coronavirus.

The garbage collection in Brussels has been disrupted several times during the coronavirus measures, mainly due to a shortage of staff.

“By now, there are far fewer sick people with us. At the height of the coronavirus crisis, 23% of the staff were absent,” said Etienne Cornesse, spokesperson for Bruxelles Propreté, to Bruzz. “A service of 100% is not possible in such circumstances. Now, the number of sick people is less than 10%. A positive evolution,” he added. Read more.

Jules Johnston
The Brussels Times

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