Monday

6th Apr 2020

Feature

Brussels: Elderly people on virus front line

  • The Grand Place in Brussels two days after Belgium's semi-lockdown (Photo: Alice Latta)

Emine Kajkus knows war.

In the early 1990s she fled the fighting in Croatia before moving to the outskirts of Belgium's capital city Brussels.

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  • Emine Kajkus in her home at Watermael-Boitsfort. (Photo: Alice Latta)

"It is a bit scary when you have lived something like that and you see empty grocery shop shelves or streets, those are reminders," she tells EUobserver.

As a caretaker nurse specialised in helping elderly people who live alone, she is today facing a new kind of battle.

The pandemic caused by Covid-19 has spread throughout much of the world, with Belgium going into a semi-lockdown to contain a virus with no known cure.

While the virus appears to have largely spared the young, it has hit older people hard and others with underlying medical conditions. The average age of death among one cluster of those infected in Italy was 81.

Kajkus along with over two dozen caretakers work for Vivre chez Soi, a non-profit launched in 1960.

The organisation currently provides care for up to 400 elderly people throughout Watermael-Boitsfort, a residential suburb in Brussels.

"It is really an aid tailored to the person, it is an aid so that they can stay at home," says Kajkus.

Many rely on the non-profit for basics like food delivery. Others require more intensive care when it comes to medication and hygiene.

Others have no family, meaning regular visits from a friendly nurse could help fight loneliness and curb depression.

But with a virus that is particularly dangerous for older people, Kajkus and her colleagues are now forced to take extra precautions before providing any care to a population at high risk of getting sick.

"With the pathologies they have, diabetes, hypertension and all that, they are on the front line," she says.

Last week, at least two old people at a private nursing home in the same neighbourhood had tested positive for the virus. Twelve were hospitalised and the home was put into immediate quarantine.

The nursing home is not linked to Vivre chez Soi. But the fear and risk of a broader outbreak in the suburb is ever present.

Vivre chez Soi caretakers are now donning extra protective gear like respirators, that need to be changed between each visit.

Their weekly routines have also shifted. On Mondays, they usually meet in a large group to plan out the week. Now their meetings will have to be divided into smaller groups of five people to minimize contact.

The non-profit has since been elevated to a crisis service centre to ensure aid is given and maintained for those in need. A special call centre was also launched for outreach.

'No panic'

Kajkus was speaking to EUobserver on Saturday (14 March), shortly after Belgium had announced restrictions throughout the country.

Authorities had suspended classes but schools remain open to look after the children of parents who work in health care like Kajkus.

Although delivery services are still available, restaurants, bars and cafes have been shut down until the start of April.

Concerts, cinemas and other cultural and sporting activities have also been cancelled.

For Monique Debaillie, an 83-year old resident of Watermael-Boitsfort, the cancellation of social activities will be difficult, she said.

When EUobserver ran into Debaillie on a bright early Saturday afternoon, she was pushing her stroller along a sidewalk with her daughter at her side.

Her husband had passed away five years ago. She too now lives alone.

She is also among the 400 elderly in the neighbourhood to get extra help from Vivre chez Soi. Her daughter, who lives outside Brussels, had come to buy her mother groceries.

As her daughter shopped, Debaillie remained outside the store given the risks.

"I am not panicking," she said, while maintaining a distance of at least one metre from this reporter.

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