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The deadly impact of Covid-19 on Europe’s care homes

The coronavirus has swept through Europe’s care homes killing thousands of residents. According to one recent study, on average the number of deaths account for half of the total victims. Speaking to families, care workers and associations, in this episode of Unreported Europe Euronews’ Valérie Gauriat investigates some of the best and worst practice.

“Over the past four days, every shift that I’ve been on, we’ve lost somebody, unfortunately.”

Anne Clark, carer.

Italy’s silent massacre

Pietro La Grassa works in a pharmacy inside one of Europe’s largest nursing homes located in the northern Italian city of Milan. Like the Lombardy region as a whole, the regional capital was hit hard by the virus.

The home was unable to escape either. Since the start of the country’s health emergency more than 200 residents have died. A trade union activist, Pietro believes many lives could have been saved if safety measures had been put in place weeks earlier.

“At the beginning of March, some employees took the initiative to put on masks. They were reprimanded and forced to remove them, on the pretext they were frightening the patients,” explains Pietro. He adds: “The region needed to free up hospital beds, in order to prepare for what might happen with Covid, so it assigned patients to care homes. Unfortunately, there were no checks in these nursing homes!”

More than a quarter of the home’s work force contracted the virus. Understaffed, the teams say they are exhausted and disillusioned.

“For those of us who are still working among those people, no tests whatsoever were done. And they continue to move us from one unit to another as if nothing has happened,” says nurse Nadia Mordini.

“I had to put them in bags”

Italy is not alone. Many care workers throughout Europe have raised the alarm claiming the alleged wrongdoings in the nursing and care home sector are widespread.

For one Spanish care assistant we spoke to, the situation has become all too much.

“The dead… I had to put them in bags. I had to stretch them out because they died shrivelled up like this, I witnessed this. I had to close their eyes. I had to take them down to the morgue. And when the morgue was full, I took them to the underground car park,” explains David Perez.

Like many, he also believes the deaths were avoidable.

“If an isolation unit had been opened at the start, where anyone who showed symptoms could have been transferred, and the others residents had been left in their rooms, and if all the carers had had the protective equipment, which were not delivered to them for 2 weeks, I can assure you that the spread of the virus in the home would not have occurred!”

Like Italy, Spain has suffered greatly at the hands of the virus. That has inevitably led to questions over the authorities handling of the pandemic. Almudena Ariza, parents lived together in a retirement home. The couple died just days apart. Their children blame a lack of medical care for the deaths, saying their parents died under sedation, after their condition suddenly got worse.

“It’s very hard, very difficult to imagine them like that, alone, or maybe together? Maybe blaming each other? Accusing one another? explains Almudena. “How can I know?… I don’t know. Neither my father nor my mother deserved this fate. They were not allowed a place in a hospital, or a ventilator because they were 86 years old. For us, it just feels like they were completely abandoned. Our elderly are literally being left to fend for themselves.”

“Billions in profit”

Europe’s care home sector is concentrated in the hands of a few large private groups, often run by pension and investment funds. Eileen Chubb is the Director of Compassion in Care, an organisation which seeks to improve conditions in the UK’s care homes. Claiming the lucrative industry puts profits before safety, the former care worker turned whistleblower has long campaigned to highlight what she sees as a crisis inside the care home sector. Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, her helpline has received dozens of complaints.

“There’s too many care companies that are quite willing to fill beds and they don’t mind at what cost, and because care home staff are running on a wing and a prayer with staffing ratios, it doesn’t take much to tip this over the edge, she insists, adding: “These companies have made billions in profit, and then we’ve got a situation where they’re saying they couldn’t have foreseen this crisis and bought protective equipment for their staff. It is outrageous!”

seventy-five percent of residents, and 51 percent of staff, were Covid positive”

The lack of resources in many nursing homes in Europe has led, in some countries to the army being drafted in. At La Providence Saint Christophe care home in Belgium, the army had to be deployed after 17 out of 128 residents died during the first few weeks of the crisis.

“At the start we didn’t have the necessary protection. We tested everyone in the home on April 7 and it turned out that seventy-five percent of residents, and 51 percent of staff, were Covid positive. So we called in the military, to take care of the residents,” the home’s Director Patrick Smousse said.

Hope in the face of despair

Despite the wave of deaths, in a rare number of cases, some retirement homes have managed to stem the deadly tide. The Vilanova Care Home near the city of Lyon in south east France is one example.

“For several weeks, the director of this care home and a large part of the employees decided to totally isolate themselves, day and night, with the residents. The result, no one has been contaminated so far. In order not to jeopardise that, we film everything through windows.” Valérie Gauriat, Euronews International Reporter

On March 18, more than half of the staff in Vilanova, moved into the home bringing their suitcases and sleeping bags. Rallying around their director, they were determined to save the 106 residents.

“Our residents are not isolated to their rooms,” says director Valérie Martin. “They are still able to have social contact with the other residents. It’s the same for us, as we see them all the time. They don’t have the feeling of being abandoned or loneliness.”

“Everyone is really lovely. They’re a bit like family for me. I see the workers going back and forth, they come to say hello, then they go to do whatever the have to. It makes me really happy!” one resident says.

Despite the personal cost, the care staff agree that the huge effort has been worth it.

“I have a 10-month-old son. So of course, he is at home and obviously he is changing, and I’m missing a lot of that. But for me it made sense to stay isolated here. To protect the residents, and to protect my family as well,” one employee says.

The home’s director Valérie Martin believes lessons must be learned from a health crisis that has had devastating impact on the care sector.

“It’s taken a global catastrophe for people to realise what’s really going on in nursing homes. And that is a lack of means, a lack of funds, a lack of staff, and a lack of recognition of our trade. And really now, money must be made available, and directed towards the old. The elderly are not a burden, they are our memory. So we have to love them, and be there for them. And above all, we need to make sure that they have a tender and pleasant life until the end,” she says.

After a total of 7 weeks of isolation, all the staff were tested for coronavirus: nobody was positive.