Belgians lose interest in government's free face masks

Belgians lose interest in government's free face masks
The masks in question arrived in packs of five rather than individual packaging. © Belga

Belgian pharmacies have given out less than 10% of the 18 million face masks ordered by the federal government, one week after the free distribution began.

"Out of the 18 million face masks bought by the Belgian Defence, we handed out around 1.2 million in one week," Alain Chaspierre, spokesperson for the Association of Pharmacists Belgium (APB) told The Brussels Times.

"It is much less than we thought," he added. "We did not see the rush that we expected after one week."

According to Chaspierre, the masks' delayed arrival could be a reason behind the lack of interest from citizens.

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"The masks arrived quite late, many people already have at least one mask," he said.

Promised by the federal government in late April, the masks' distribution ultimately began on 15 June, weeks after officials at the local and regional level decided to place their own mask orders for their residents.

"There has also been a lot of controversy regarding the quality of the masks," he noted.

Ahead of the distribution, textile groups in Belgium said a majority of the masks did not comply with official recommendations because they needed to be washed at 30ºC instead of the usually recommended 60ºC.

While Chaspierre said that lab results had shown that the mask's filtration and permeability capacities were "excellent," he said that pharmacist's still advised clients not to wear them for 72 hours after a 30ºC- wash.

Geneviève Celis, a pharmacist in Saint-Gilles, said that, at the current pace, she did not think her pharmacy would go through the stock of masks received.

"The first couple of days there was a bit of enthusiasm around them, but it's died down," Celis said, also saying that she believed the "bad publicity" surrounding the masks was to blame.

"Out of 2,000 I received, I have so far given out 137," Celis said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

In Ixelles, a pharmacy located in the busy shopping area of Chaussé d'Ixelles said that one week in, they estimated to have given around thirty face masks.

"So far today I have given out three," pharmacist Claude Basunga said, adding that a majority of the people who had come pick up a mask were usual clients.

Basunga said that he believed that, eventually, his stock would be emptied, echoing another pharmacist in Forest who said that "a free face mask was always welcome."

"We will have the time to go through the stocks," Chaspierre said. "We said we would do the distribution in two weeks but if we have any leftovers we can always keep handing them out."

"Besides, we don't know how much this pandemic will last — if there's a second wave, people will be quite glad to have access to a free mask," he said.

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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