Belgium's healthcare workers believe their premier turned her back on them when they needed her most. So they returned the favor.
As the global public health crisis continues, medical employees are bearing the brunt of broken healthcare systems. On Sunday, the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Saint-Pierre Hospital in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, lined both sides of the road leading up to their facility in light of Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès' official visit. This was, however, no grand welcome - it was an act of defiance. As her car drove up the street, the medics turned their backs to her in a "guard of dishonor." The healthcare workers were expressing in silent protest their dissatisfaction with how she has thus far handled the ongoing pandemic, Yahoo! News reports.
The power of a silent protest. Medics turned their backs as Belgium’s prime minister arrived at a hospital. The reception was in response to the government’s approach towards the medical health care workers amid the ongoing #COVID19 crisis. #coronavirus— Sameer Hashmi (@sameerhashmi) May 18, 2020
Over the past few weeks, Belgian medical workers have been demanding higher wages, extra staff, and an end to cuts in the national healthcare budget. There have also been several complaints of a serious dearth of personal protective equipment, which many believe led to the hasty spread of the disease. Though Prime Minister Wilmès claimed that the hospital visits were "important moments of meeting and dialog for both the nursing staff and [herself]," medical staff are of the belief that their opinions have been disregarded and sidelined. The recent silent protest, therefore, sent a powerful message to the country's woman of the hour.
Very powerful and meaningful protest by the health professionals in the Belgium when PM arrives to review the situation. Representatives later explained that front-line workers were disappointed in the government’s handling of the crisis.https://t.co/gb1BGqJwIo— Ashique Ali (@ashiqueali001) May 18, 2020
The protest was especially damning as Saint-Pierre Hospital has been Belgium's reference medical facility ever since the outbreak first began. There, professionals have been complaining of extreme fatigue and burnout owing to long and exploitative working hours. The hospital was particularly affected by the central government's budget cuts, Anadolu Agency reports. While the Prime Minister is yet to make a statement about the protest itself, she affirmed at a recent press conference, "Nothing will be the same after the crisis, we need to reevaluate the importance of the nursing profession."
However, few are convinced. Belgium was so poorly prepared for such an outbreak due to its weakened healthcare system. Most Belgians hold the Prime Minister accountable for this. As the nation's then-Budget Minister in 2019, Wilmès was responsible for the severe budget cuts that left the European nation's healthcare system crippled. Further to this, people also believe Minister of Health Maggie De Block is partially to blame; her decision to sell Belgium's supply of masks left the country seriously vulnerable. While the situation seems to have improved from what it was just a month ago, lockdown restrictions are already being lifted by the Belgian government. Soon, bars and restaurants will operate as per usual - a looming reality that frontline health workers are not happy about. As they risk their lives to save patients affected by the deadly disease, Prime Minister Wilmès is eager to open the economy back up, further increasing the risks they are forced to confront.
This is very powerful.— Rachael Swindon (@Rachael_Swindon) May 17, 2020
Video: Belgian health workers turn their backs on their PM in protest at handling of pandemic. Belgium has considerably fewer deaths per head than UK pic.twitter.com/T3uJAHRtW9
On a per-capita basis, Belgium is one of the worst-hit - if not the worst overall - countries in the world. Though the nation is home to only 11.5 million people, it has experienced a mortality rate of 78.8 deaths per 100,000 people. In comparison, Spain has a mortality rate of 59, Italy a mortality rate of 52.5, and the United Kingdom's mortality rate stands at 51.9 per 100,000 people. Across the pond in the United States, we have a mortality rate of 27 deaths per 100,000 people. Needless to say, Belgium's government perhaps acted too naively and slowly, a fact that has become all too real for the country's frontline health workers.