Belgium COVID19 response

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Information relayed by the Belgian Disability Forum



Relayed by Fundamental Rights Agency (May 2020):

Conditions and visits in residential care institutions

In Belgium, all visits to people residing in institutions for persons with disabilities were prohibited until 15 April, except for specific cases, such as in “crisis situations”, “end of life” situations or cases where “the psychosocial well-being of the resident is compromised.” On 15 April, the National Security Council announced that residents would be allowed to have a single visitor, under the condition it is always the same person and he or she shows no signs of the virus.49 This decision was met with a lot of criticism from the field as the institutions and care professionals had not been sufficiently consulted on this decision and felt they did not have the means to organise the visits in a timely and safe manner. The director of one of the main care networks also pointed out that it was unclear how to designate the one visitor in situations of family conflict.

 In Flanders, the Government announced on 16 April that the decision to allow visits caused a great deal of commotion in the Flemish healthcare sector and among local authorities and it decided that it would not implement the new measure.  On 29 April, the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities decided to allow visits for residents again under strict conditions. As a minimum, there must be enough staff available to organise visits with respect for hygienic and safety measures, and the necessary protective gear must be available. The visit remains limited to closest relatives or trustees, with a maximum of one visitor at a time.

In the Walloon Region, the Walloon Minister for Employment, Social Action, Health and Equal Opportunities stated that institutions for persons with disabilities would not allow visitors yet after the Federal Government’s new measure was announced. The Walloon Government decided that all institutions would remain closed for visitors until all residents and staff have been tested.

 In Brussels, visits were not possible immediately after the National Security Council’s announcement on 15 April either. The Agency for Persons with Disabilities (PHARE) issued new guidelines on 21 April for institutions for persons with disabilities, allowing visits by a single family member or trustee, provided it is always the same visitor.

The media reported that persons with disabilities in institutions are facing particular difficulties due to the measures of confinement, as residents are not able to leave and have no contact with their family (except by telephone or Messenger).

Many persons with disabilities residing in institutions have not seen their family for weeks. The Director of an institution reported that on 24 April, for the first time since the lockdown, residents could see their family in specially set up tents with plexiglass. One family member reports she had not seen her daughter since 11 March.

In addition, there is a lack of protective equipment available for residential care institutions for persons with disabilities. The Director of the Flemish Welfare Association reports that supplies provided by the Government are not sufficient and institutions are having to rely on donations or homemade mouth masks. 

Access to health care

In Belgium, the National High Council for Persons with Disabilities raised concerns about access to intensive care services for persons with disabilities. It noted that it is unclear whether disability is used as a criterion for access to intensive care (‘triage’). The Council is also concerned there might be ‘upstream triage’, referring to potential lack of referral of persons with disabilities staying in residential institutions to hospitals. The Council therefore strongly urged that the ethical guidelines for medical practitioners be modified in order to ensure equal access to healthcare for all.

Unia, the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, also stated that due to social distancing measures, persons with disabilities and older persons do not have equal access to health care. Reported cases included older persons and persons with disabilities being given oxygen in an institution without medical supervision. A person with an intellectual disability was also told to leave a hospital because he cried and shouted too much. And many older people and people with disabilities are told that they are ‘not a priority’. Unia therefore asked the Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics to urgently adopt a statement on discrimination against persons with disabilities and older people in access to care. 

Access to supermarkets and other stores

 In Belgium, Unia, the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities raised concerns about the accessibility of supermarkets for persons with disabilities after having received complaints on this issue. Unia therefore urged Comeos, the representative of Belgian Trade and Services, to take into account the particular needs of persons with disabilities by, for example, giving them priority access during certain time slots, allowing them to skip lines, retaining the option of paying in cash etc. 

The media also reported a father being denied access to a supermarket with his autistic son. The father was told he could enter the store by himself, but had to leave his son in the car. A woman with a physical disability also reported that she was denied access to a supermarket and a garden centre because she could not push a shopping cart. Many supermarkets are currently obligating all customers to use a shopping cart to ensure social distancing. Grocery shopping has also become very difficult for persons with visual impairments who rely on other senses, such as touch, to find their way.

Access to public transportation

In Belgium, the National Railway Service (NRS) suspended all assistance to persons with disabilities and with reduced mobility as of 21 March 2020 in light of the COVID-19-outbreak. In response, Unia, the Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities, raised concerns about the lack of assistance for persons with disabilities on trains, which prevented many from going to work. It pleated with the national railway services to continue to organise assistance for persons with disabilities for all essential travel. The NRS subsequently announced that it will resume assistance from 4 May onwards under strict conditions. For instance, all assistance will have to be reserved 24 hours in advance in all stations and no physical contact is allowed. In response, the National High Council for Persons with Disabilities stated that the assistance will not be effective due to the lack of direct physical contact allowed between traveller and railway employee, especially for persons with visual impairments. The Council therefore requested the NRS to find a suitable solution, noting that with the correct use of mouth masks, disinfectant gel, gloves, etc., assistance with physical contact can proceed safely.

Lack of support for families of persons with disabilities

In Belgium, persons with disabilities who returned home at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak have since not been able to return to care centres. Media have reported that many families are struggling because they now have taken care of family members with disabilities – including children – at home fulltime. The organisation “Gezin en Handicap” reports that it has received cries for help from several parents. Many children with autism or an intellectual disability, are struggling with all the sudden changes. They no longer go to school or to a day centre, their day looks completely different. This often results in difficult behaviour. Parents also have to take time off work to be able to care for their children at home. Parents of children with severe mental or physical disabilities are at risk of financial and emotional difficulties. There is not enough staff available to help assist and care for children with disabilities at home.