Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Belgium has scrambled to find enough face masks for the population, partly because it destroyed a strategic stockpile of millions of masks ahead of the outbreak. How did that happen?
In November 2018, the army barracks where over 22 million surgical masks were stored had to be emptied, as the terrain became property of the city of Namur and the Red Cross would set up a refugee centre in its place.
Since another storage facility had not been found, the cabinet of Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block had given permission to tender for the destruction of the masks.
The masks had been purchased 12 years prior, out of concern for a bird flu epidemic in Belgium. However, an epidemic did not happen, and the masks turned out the be unnecessary.
The government provided detailed justification for the purchase at the end of the year in the draft budget. “A certain anxiety” about “a new virus against which the human immune system cannot do anything.”
Three years later, the masks are part of the reason that Belgium is well-prepared for the threat of the swine flu. “Thanks to the Influenza Commissariat, Belgium is already well prepared and an example at European level,” a government announcement by former Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy and Minister of Public Health Laurette Onkelinx stated. “From an operational point of view, Belgium is prepared, with a stock of 500,000 antiviral treatments and 32 million surgical masks,” they added.
However, as the swine flu passed, the masks were again not used. When the storage contracts with the Ministry of Defence expired, the masks were destroyed, and they were never replaced, meaning Belgium had to deal with a shortage when masks did become necessary for the coronavirus epidemic at the start of 2020.
“In the beginning, everyone was sent to the emergency room for a throat or nose-swab,” Tinne Lernout of the Belgian national health institute Sciensano, who coordinates the Risk Assessment Group (RAG), told Het Nieuwsblad. “When the number of possible cases started to rise, we wanted to call in the GPs. But they had to be able to protect themselves when they were taking tests. They could not, because there were not enough masks,” she added.
This resulted in the advice to only test people with symptoms that were severe enough to warrant a hospital admission. If Belgium had kept the stock, or renewed it after its destruction, a lot of infections at the start of the outbreak could have been avoided, according to Lernout.
The RAG, commissioned by the government to assess the risks of an epidemic, sounded the alarm as early as February. “Initially, masks were sent from Europe to Wuhan in China. By the time Belgium wanted to buy masks for itself, it was difficult to find them,” she added.
Belgium had to join the worldwide hunt for masks, which was completely disrupted at that point. Minister Philippe De Backer gets appointed as the head of a taskforce which has to arrange the masks as soon as possible.
Tom Auwers, top executive of the FPS Public Health told Het Nieuwsblad. “I don’t think the public would have been happy if we had distributed 12-year-old masks. After the destruction, we developed a concept for a strategic stockpile and started working on it together with our cabinet,” he said.
“But the situation caught up with us – we were in the ungrateful situation of a government in progress. An order for €100 million, just in case anything ever happens, in times when the federal government has to save money every year?” he added.
According to De Block, “they would have declared [her] crazy” if she had asked the government for €100 million or more to renew the stock in that situation. “I cannot rewrite history either,” De Block said. “We wanted to go to a rolling stock. I had asked the FPS to create a framework for that. It was not ready when corona [sic] came,” she added.
In the meantime, the government now has a large supply of masks. Enough to survive a second wave, it said.
“At the same time the question arises as to where the professional healthcare providers themselves were,” said Auwers of the FPS Public Health. “A residential care centre, an individual general practitioner or a physiotherapist might in the future also have to think about having their own protective equipment in the cupboard,” he added.
“It does not have to be a large supply – there are fifty masks in such a box, and they will last a long time. They do not always have to look to the government for that. But with what we have now built up in stock, we can handle the second wave,” he added.
The Brussels Times