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Belgium, still in need of masks, had a large stock but destroyed it

Maggie De Block, Belgian Minister of Health, after a council of ministers of the federal government, on March 20 in Brussels, on plans to support the economic and social consequences of Covid-19.
Maggie De Block, Belgian Minister of Health, after a council of ministers of the federal government, on March 20 in Brussels, on plans to support the economic and social consequences of Covid-19. DAINA LE LARDIC / AFP

Like many countries affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, Belgium still lacks masks, in particular the most effective ones intended for doctors and primary care staff. However, it destroyed millions in 2017 or 2018: they were certainly expired but the stock was not renewed, contrary to the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The issue of masks has been a real saga in the kingdom since the start of the pandemic. Regularly put on the hot seat, the federal health minister, Maggie De Block, a Flemish liberal, makes reassuring remarks, but often contradicted by medical personnel. During an episode of this soap opera, it was discovered that an order made in Turkey had failed due to fraud; on another occasion masks arrived from China, and promised to the carers, were found to be of insufficient quality.

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Even more astonishing revelations have enameled the news. Earlier this week, newspapers reported that a large supply of FFP2 masks – the most airtight – had been stored in a barracks, but were out of use. Six million copies were destroyed on the orders of the health ministry, said the Labor Party (PTB, radical left), on the basis of official documents. And Minister De Block decided not to replace them, refusing to sign an order if she did not plan to replace the stock when it arrived on its expiration date.

“Irresponsible”

In response, Ms. De Block’s office said it was out of the question at the time. “Wasting taxpayer money” and that he had to stick to complex rules. Only one certainty: the destroyed reserves have never been replaced, which explains the difficulties currently facing the country.

“Irresponsible”, judge Rudy Demotte (PS), one of Mrs. De Block’s predecessors at the head of the health department. Between 2003 and 2007, the time of the first epidemics (SARS and avian flu), he had ordered 38 million masks, including 6 million FFP2.

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Ms. De Block, a general practitioner by profession, has often been criticized for her desire to severely limit the growth of her department’s budget. His cabinet denies, however, that she wanted to save money by giving up ordering essential materials. She would only have wanted “A deep reflection” on the best means of obtaining it but would have been the victim of slowness due, in particular, to the requirements of budgetary rigor and to the political crises with repetition.

“Once the pandemic is over, I will request that a parliamentary commission of inquiry be established to investigate this matter thoroughly Says Sofie Merckx, doctor and MPP for the PTB.

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