Covid in a reception center

David* works in a reception center for asylum seekers in Belgium. Including several hundred people, « strange » flu-like conditions appear as early as March 2020. The management of the center warns its hierarchy, but this one recommends to do nothing and to let the occupants continue to sleep with 8 per room. This laxity is in contrast to the severity of the measures that will be put in place a few weeks later. There will be no deaths, but the effects of the political measures have been formidable. David’s testimony shows two essential elements: nothing was done when it should have been done; those who are already victims of our iniquitous societies, are victimized a second time.

Kairos: Are there many people in the asylum center where you work?

David: Yes, the rooms range from 3 to 8 people. It’s a former military barracks, so big buildings, and people are crammed together. To give you an idea, I think that when there are 8 people in a room, it should be less than 25m².

Why do you decide to contact us?

I had watched one of your teasers that my buddies had shared(1). I saw that there was a willingness to think differently about what is happening, these events that we are witnessing that I can’t understand… I read quite a bit and I am very interested in it, and at the beginning it seems to me that there were strategies to fight effectively against covid, at least to stop its spread. I’m talking about March 2020. Containment was one such strategy. At that time the masks, the barrier gestures, we didn’t really know… We know now that it could have been effective. And so in March, we saw people getting sick one after the other. Not serious cases, rather loss of taste, loss of smell. At the time of the summer, it stopped, it was considered that it was thanks to the measures that had been put in place, but this is completely false. The distancing, the masks, the disinfectant gel, in a center like ours, it’s just not tenable.

So at the same time, in the media we were told that there were measures taken and respected, but in the reality of certain environments, notably the one where you work, nothing was actually done. You also explain in the letter you sent us that at the very beginning you warned the authorities?

At the very beginning of March, a young guy in his twenties had a strange flu. At that moment we already knew that something was happening, Italy had confined, France was close to doing it… We panicked a little and sent him to the emergency room. Since he was young, not really at risk, they considered it a normal flu and sent him back to us by bus, without mask or any protection. We tried to isolate him as best we could, but it was complicated, and we notified all authorities, including our Department. There was no reaction, the denial lasted almost a month. We were the last to implement measures such as reducing the number of staff present on site or adapting the pace of work. The last two weeks of March, Belgium was confined and we were all still working there, having meetings with thirty people around the table. We were freaking out. We saw on television the people who died and the specialists who entered the rooms « suspected covid » dressed as cosmonauts, while in our country masks were forbidden. I have a colleague who once came in with a mask; he was told to remove it so as not to cause panic.

The management forbade the wearing of masks?

Our Department does. The motto was: since we don’t have enough masks to provide all the residents, the staff won’t wear them. However, we still had to do room visits, people were afraid, they could have gone crazy, they could have thought they were being left to die. As a result, an exponential number of patients, more than the other years, but no severe cases, and that on the whole network of reception! Finally, this was when we had news. We were considered heroes. There have been no serious cases or deaths.

Do you feel like it’s incompetence, it’s been mishandled, or is it something more like a will? Because you told us in this mail that you were then asked to act in total opposition to the laxity of the beginning. How do you interpret it?

One leaves the umbrellas. Now we have masks, so we are asked to put them on, whereas at the beginning we were very reluctant… The population was not able to use them properly, and we were asked to sign documents affirming that this was the case, in order to discharge ourselves. We were given guidelines that are totally unenforceable. The latest measures are crazy! We have been under reconfinement for two weeks now(2), a confinement that is not really a confinement, and we asked if we were going to go back to the spring regime (reduction of personnel present on the site). We were told that we were not, that we were not in the same situation at all. We have the masks, the gel, so we can keep piling on. They waited another 15 days before sending us a summary of the Fedasil Vade Mecum on the new government measures, which advises, among other things, to organize themselves so that people come to eat room by room, but we can’t ask them that! It’s another way to get rid of guilt: measures are enacted, you are asked to put things in place, and if you don’t, or aren’t able to, it’s your responsibility. And asylum seekers will not be able to file a complaint later for lack of protection.

And now the citizens are made responsible, as if it were their fault. Should it sound different to you?

Yes, totally. I also exposed myself a bit in the center, because I said  » be careful, we are telling them that if they get sick, it’s their fault « , while we do nothing for them. For the past six months or so, they have been realizing that they are not dying from covid anyway, and that their friends and family all over Belgium and the world are not dying from it either, nor are they developing severe cases of the disease. But they are prevented from living. In addition, the Aliens’ Office has been closed, the procedures are getting longer and longer, they are forbidden to work… Things have started to pick up a little, especially with the apple season, which is a big opportunity for asylum seekers. Plus it was a big year, and we didn’t have the Poles or the Romanians to harvest them, so the farmers were in demand. Many refugees take advantage of this opportunity to work.

We don’t talk about it much…

We don’t talk about it. But then yes, many have been working in August, September, October. They can make a lot of money that way. They can earn maybe 1,500, 2,000 euros in a month when usually they get 12.90€ a week. It’s money they send home, and it has a real impact. But if they’re told they can’t go because they’ve been in covid contact…and that’s what happened. We have a guy who tested positive, but he’s fine, he’s 20 years old and perfectly healthy. We isolate it in a container room, containers that arrived at the end of the summer (before we had no way to do that. Everything was always done after the epidemic peak, with a huge delay). He is isolated and his entire room is told that until they are tested, they must remain in quarantine. They are not sick, have no symptoms, and they are not allowed to go to work. But it’s their best chance on the year, the shortfall is huge and they had no compensation… so they were going anyway. Not just apples. They are all in precarious contracts that they cannot afford to lose.

People are crowded into the center. If we came with a camera, what would be the reaction?

Already the authorizations to enter will be very complicated to obtain, almost impossible. Especially now.

In your letter, you told us that the risk you had of losing your place by talking about all this. Yet you only describe reality, and what you say should be able to be said. Why do you feel like you could lose your place?

First of all, in our department they are very cold. Communication is extremely tight, the environment is very hierarchical. In addition, when we travel, wherever we go, we represent the institution. Even what you post on Facebook can be perceived as an attack on your image, some have already been fired for that. There is definitely oversight and padlocking around the communication of the centers. I got angry, because ours had published at the end of September that we had been scrupulously respecting the anti-covid measures for months, that social distancing, barrier gestures, wearing masks, hydroalcoholic gel were part of our daily routine, but this is not true! My colleague was in charge of publishing this and I reacted because, for me, this is lying to people. He told me that he understood that it was a lie, but that it made us look good. And it’s true that we don’t really want to be talked about, since it would be very easy for some people to say that it’s the foreigners’ fault if the virus spreads.

There is a kind of omerta. You protect yourself and thus, indirectly, you also cover the government.

Yes. And I personally believe that the measures that are being taken now are not working in the long run. That’s why there are more and more people in hospitals. You don’t ask grandparents to stop seeing their grandchildren for months or even years! If it’s for three months, we all lock ourselves in and make an effort. But now we realize that it will last much longer, and that it will not be sustainable. And I think it’s crazy that in the center there hasn’t been a revolt yet! There are conspiracy theories circulating, especially among Africans, because in Africa nothing is happening, or at least people are not dying en masse. Why? I can’t explain it precisely. But these people are asking themselves questions, wondering what we want them to do in the end. There was talk of testing a first vaccine in Africa, which caused a stir! It is always the same people who are beaten, and these refugees, who are already involved in lengthy procedures, who are going to be parked in dormitory towns in Brussels or Antwerp, are going to be the first to suffer from reconfinement and to be beaten up if they exceed the curfew by one minute, and will not even be able to spend a day at sea in case of deconfinement. That’s a lot.

And by the way, in terms of vaccines, have the authorities told you their policy? Could the refugees be the first?

Why not, there is a chance. From what I’ve read, it would be the elderly and caregivers first. Anyway, we always pass through the radar! At first, we didn’t even test centers like ours. Then, when the policy became one of massive testing, that changed, and several centers were even confined. I had a contact with a nurse who works in one of these centers… Oh yes, another incomprehensible measure: to avoid the comings and goings, the permissions were changed from a maximum of ten days to a minimum of one month! This means that normally, residents are allowed to leave the center for a maximum of ten days, in order to make the most of the available space. Now, this period has been changed to a minimum of one month. But at some point they have to come back, to get their stuff for example… they can’t. We had a case of a guy who came back when he was supposed to be out. He was coming back from Antwerp, so from a red zone. Mandatory test for him, he is positive, and therefore for all his buddies; half of them were also positive, but asymptomatic. Anyway, they tested the whole center, and of course there was a large enough proportion of positive cases to confine the center. This means that there are totally useless guards around the center, which is, with or without guards, a real sieve. It’s a waste of money.

Since the second confinement, are there any new constraints for you?

Despite the fact that they could theoretically spend the confinement outside, in view of the four-week rule, they prefer to stay at the center. It’s very risky for them to go outside the network. Especially since most of them have already « abused » the hospitality of their acquaintances (who are also often in a precarious situation) during the first confinement. So the center is complete, unlike the first containment. But new constraints, no, not really.

You also mention the policy towards children…

What is hard for the children is that they have not been to school since March, almost. When there was some sort of « re-entry », very few were involved. A large number will end up dropping out, and in terms of integration this is hopeless. School is the best way for them to integrate, but this possibility is being taken away from them, in addition to the possibility of learning the language. They are falling far behind. This can have a big impact on their future. They were also told that they could potentially « kill » their parents or grandparents. It is a trauma. Moreover, nobody dared to approach them, no more activities were organized for them. All the people who used to visit them, such as homework school volunteers, no longer came. Now we are starting to de-stress a little bit compared to them, but it was very hard.

At the professional level, do you consider the negative effects of the measures to be worse than the effects of the virus?

Yes. And in fact, colleagues in the medical office say they have never seen so many psychiatric cases. People want to move, to work, to meet people, but also to forget their worries. Those who are there at the center often have a difficult past, and being confined means rehashing that past all the time. There are some who don’t sleep anymore, who go crazy. And this is not a matter of five months, they will suffer all their life. I feel like breaking my television set when I see a smiling infectious disease specialist, head of department and so on, who surely earns a very good living, say  » make an effort of a few months, over a lifetime it is not much, so that I can work properly « . I agree that we need to protect the caregivers, of course, and they are not at all responsible for the state of the hospitals and the situation we are in, but they are not the only ones suffering. So when Alexander De Croo says  » our only concern is the hospitals and the nursing staff « , it’s not possible. He is the prime minister of all Belgians, normally. All the measures cannot be only to rescue hospitals, it has enormous consequences on people’s lives and even if it is only for a few months, it can ruin their lives. Added to this is the guilt-tripping, everywhere, all the time. If you are sick, it’s your fault. Instead of giving us the means to be able to take care of ourselves, we are forbidden to be sick. For people who have everything to build here, like young people or refugees, it is heavy with consequences. The perspectives, the hope of a better life… are gone when you leave your country where it’s shit and here, it’s worse. So yes, I consider the cure to be much worse than the disease itself. We stop life.

Do you have other colleagues who want to testify, to talk, or do you feel that they are afraid?

People are afraid of losing their jobs. They are afraid of the disease too. But we realize that we are not going to die from it, from covid! That is, we understood that we were not a population at risk. If I say this to my colleague, she will say  » yes, but I know someone who… », but scratch that! If you experienced the spring epidemic peak without any problems, why stay worried? They tell us we’re all going to die, and  » look at these people, here, who don’t respect safety distances!  » We have to stop.

It is not even allowed to play down the disease anymore. They are now called « reassuranceists »…

Yes, not to say conspiratorial. I don’t know if it’s really effective, or if we’re going to eradicate the virus like that, I don’t think so, actually. People will always keep moving. And we need to stop making people feel guilty for getting sick.

Currently, we have zero positive cases out of several hundred residents, and this for several weeks, while we are in an environment rather conducive to the spread. The sick were considered to be borderline plague patients, confined to containers, so perhaps they were hiding for fear of being tested and confined. But if one of them had visible symptoms, it would be known, and in any case we don’t see them anymore. And no deaths!

In the Moria camp, where there are 13,000 instead of 3,000, which burned in Lesbos? where there are a thousand people for two toilets, it should have been a massacre! However, nothing. Now that we know who develops severe cases of the virus, that’s where we need to go. Invest in the protection of these people, but not in stopping the lives of an entire population, which is not at risk. However, people are told that everyone is at risk. A minister insists that he has been there, in the hospitals, and that he has seen young people there. One was 28 years old, but severely obese. So of course, since we have an increasingly older and more obese population, we die more. But we can’t even get 15 year olds to believe that they can die from it, and become murderers by spreading it. So respect the barrier gestures, keep your distance… stop living. Residents would also have a say. Sometimes they tell me about it. Some tell me it’s a big joke, others point to the fact that they are told about coronavirus, but stacked in rooms of 8… At that point, I can only tell them that yes, they are right. Hence the dissonance, and the need to talk about it here too. Our job has almost become prevention covid. We spend a lot of time on this, we almost harass them! But they put up with it. If they were such dangerous characters, as they like to say, there would have been riots by now. But they stay so calm. It’s more like the staff is freaking out!

In the suburbs it’s the same, Molenbeek could have already caught fire! The police do not help. There is still an 18 year old kid who got killed(3). Soon we may not be able to film the police anymore, they will be able to have fun, and it is always the same ones that we will control. This will give another reason, sanitary this time, to beat up the young Arabs. To fine them 250 euros because they wear their mask under their nose. Money they don’t have, so some people bury their heads in the sand, and they start their lives with justice on their ass. We will take it from their CPAS of 867 euros. They are the ones who are controlled, because they don’t move around anymore, they don’t drive, they have to work on the side, so they don’t have a valid certificate to go out after the curfew… Moreover, they don’t know how to speak the language well, so they can’t explain themselves well, and they don’t know how to keep up with all the rules that are constantly changing, and that even we have trouble following. Hard to communicate with the cops, and very easy to end up in the dungeon. All this to say that once again we are hitting the most precarious people. Always. And even we, the workers, enter into these behaviors. We make them feel guilty. But we are in the humanitarian business. We’re supposed to defend them, but we don’t.

Interview by Alexandre Penasse

Transcript: Alice Magos


Notes et références
  1. NDLR. Le teaser du documentaire à paraître de Bernard Crutzen « Ceci n’est pas un complot ».
  2. L’interview a eu lieu mi-novembre.
  3. NDLR. Le cas d’Adil, tué par des policiers lors d’une course poursuite ; policiers qui viennent de bénéficier d’un non-lieu.

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