Coronavirus: hundreds protest thinning budget of Belgian health services

Coronavirus: hundreds protest thinning budget of Belgian health services
Doctors, nurses and other hospital workers gathered outside Charleroi's University Hospital on Wednesday, in a larger protest movement aiming to pressure the government to increase the budget for Belgium's health services. Credit: La Santé en Lutte/Facebook

Hundreds of health workers in hospitals across Wallonia demonstrated on Wednesday to highlight year-long demands to refinance Belgium's health care system.

Hospital staff in Liège, Charleroi and as far south as the Fagnes health centre in Chimay, near the French border, took part in the protest, which in some cities kicked off in the early hours of the morning.

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In Charleroi's University Hospital (CHU Charleroi), hundreds of hospital staff gathered outdoors, brandishing signs, clapping and chanting and getting honks from passing vehicles.

In Liège, the protest started at around 5:30 AM, with workers gathering in front of the city's Citadelle hospital ahead of a general assembly and a minute of silence to remember the victims of the pandemic.

Some 200 health workers in Charleroi's Marie Curie hospital and others in the nearby André Vésale infirmary were also part of the protest movement, spearheaded by the CGSP union.

Nurses, doctors, stretchers, cleaning aides and other essential hospital workers demonstrated in order to keep the pressure on the government to better finance Belgium's social security, whose problems were brought to the fore by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès and Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block were called out by workers, who brandished signs urging them to "stop joking around."

The protests, spearheaded by the CGSP union, follow weeks of simmering tensions between federal leaders and hospital staff working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tensions boiled over two weeks ago, when staff at a Brussels hospital gave a chilly welcome to Wilmès during an unofficial visit, lining up with their backs turned towards her convoy as it pulled into the hospital's driveway.

The protest drew international attention and fierce condemnations from a federal minister, who was chided by unions and health workers after she compared them to "children who did not get what they want."

The demonstration also follows news that the prime minister's party, the liberal MR, would support the retreat of two decrees which "outraged" nurses and which critics said aimed to avoid staff shortages by requisitioning already overworked personnel.

The protest comes as discontent grows among the ranks of workers in Belgium's public and private health care system, and as a collective called La Santé en Lutte builds momentum for nation-wide protests after the lockdown.

“It’s been years since [health care workers] say that things are not going well, there’s not enough of us, and the [Covid-19] crisis has only exposed this,” Nathalie Lionnet, representative of the private healthcare branch of the Setca trade union, said last week.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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