The report is based on testimony from witnesses inside the care homes from March to October – from the initial stages of the crisis through the summer to the start of the second wave.
According to Amnesty, the homes were ill-prepared for the crisis. The homes had a protocol in place for dealing with infectious diseases, but nothing that could have responded to an outbreak like the one that took place.
According to another report issued in July by Doctors Without Borders, residents of care homes made up 64% of all Covid-19 deaths in Belgium in the first phase – some 6,200 individuals. The majority of those people – 4,900 in all – died in the home itself, without ever having been transferred to hospital.
Amnesty describes that situation as a breach of the right to health care. Citing figures from Doctors Without Borders (who collaborated with the report), only 57% of residents who were seriously ill were able to be transferred to hospital. Prior to Covid-19, the number was 86%.
The aim of making sure the hospitals were not overrun with cases was a legitimate one, said Wies De Graeve, director of Amnesty International Vlaanderen, but does not absolve the government from its duty to protect the rights of residents.
And residents were not the only victims. Amnesty claims that the testing capacity for care home staff was virtually non-existent until August, while staff had to work with a chronic shortage of adequate personal protective equipment.
“Action was only taken when the tragedy was made public and the worst of the first phase of the pandemic had already passed,” said De Graeve.
Meanwhile Geert Polfliet, director of one residential care centre, told the VRT this morning, “If it was not proven that residents had Covid, we were not allowed to use the protective equipment. But we could not prove it because we could not test.”
The report is a catalogue of failures: care homes inspections were cut back prior to the pandemic – a decision that proved to be critical, even fatal. GPs were unwilling to visit patients in the homes. Residents with dementia were immobilised physically or medicinally to a far greater extent than normal. Healthy residents had their movements restricted regardless of the actual risk involved.
“Belgium has not fulfilled its human rights obligations and this had serious consequences for many residents,” the report concludes. “Many received substandard health care and some older people probably died prematurely as a result.”
Appearing on VRT radio this morning, Flemish health minister Wouter Beke (CD&V) declined to discuss the report, other than to point out that the situation in the care homes has been discussed in detail in the various parliaments, and the necessary changes have been made.