Elderly Religious Overlooked in Belgium’s Early COVID-19 Vaccination Programs

In the letter, Br. Thunus explained that he was writing regarding around 1,750 religious men and women, most of whom are over 75 years of age.

An elderly person walks down the hallway
An elderly person walks down the hallway (photo: Shutterstock)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — A body representing religious men and women has questioned the exclusion of elderly religious from the early stages of coronavirus vaccination programs in Belgium.

In a letter dated Feb. 19, Br. Robert Thunus, president of the Conference of Religious Women and Men in Belgium (COREB), told Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s Minister of Health and Social Affairs, that the treatment of elderly religious was “totally inconsistent.”

Belgium, a country of 11.5 million people bordering France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, is widely reported to have the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate. More than 771,500 people have tested positive for coronavirus and over 22,000 have died in Belgium as of March 1, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

In the letter, seen by CNA, Br. Thunus explained that he was writing regarding around 1,750 religious men and women, most of whom are over 75 years of age. He expressed concern that they were being treated differently from elderly people who lived in certified care homes, despite facing a similar risk of coronavirus outbreaks.

The letter was first reported on Feb. 24 by CathoBel, the website of the Catholic Church in Belgium, which noted that homes for elderly religious varied according to the congregation. Some only house disabled people or the very old, while others include able-bodied residents who look after those who are more frail. But in all cases, community life poses an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.

The website said that COREB’s treasurer Fr. Robert Huet had raised the issue with the Agency for a Life of Quality (AViQ), which oversees health matters in Wallonia, one of the three regions of Belgium.

The agency told Fr. Huet that elderly religious would be vaccinated as part of the 1B vaccination phase, which is scheduled to begin in March and include people over 65 years of age.

In his letter, Br. Thunus described AViQ as being “deaf to our appeals.”

CathoBel said that Mathilde Vandorpe, a member of the Humanist Democratic Center (cdH) party, would question Christie Morreale, the Walloon Minister of Health, about the issue during a committee meeting on March 2.

In his letter, Br. Thunus noted that doctors administered the annual flu vaccine to elderly residents of religious communities. He said he hoped that, in a similar way, physicians would be able to obtain and administer the COVID-19 vaccine to religious sisters and brothers, as well as those who care for them. 

“They are people at risk, as are the staff members who care for them on a daily basis,” he wrote.