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Archive for the ‘Historic Land of Belgium’ Category

Bunnies to the rescue as virus hits Belgian chocolatiers

April 10, 2020

SINT-PIETERS BRUGGE, Belgium (AP) — Master chocolatier Dominique Persoone stood forlorn on his huge workfloor, a faint smell of cocoa lingering amid the idle machinery — in a mere memory of better times.

Easter Sunday is normally the most important date on the chocolate makers’ calendar. But the coronavirus pandemic, with its lockdowns and social distancing, has struck a hard blow to the 5-billion-euro ($5.5-billion) industry that’s one of Belgium’s most emblematic.

“It’s going to be a disaster,” Persoone told The Associated Press through a medical mask. He closed his shops as a precautionary measure weeks ago, and says “a lot” of Belgium’s hundreds of chocolate-makers, from multinationals to village outlets, will face financial ruin.

For the coronavirus to hit is one thing, but to do it at Easter — when chocolate bunnies and eggs are seemingly everywhere — doubles the damage. Yet amid the general gloom Belgians are allowing themselves some levity for the long Easter weekend.

Some producers, like Persoone’s famed The Chocolate Line, offer Easter eggs or bunnies in medical masks, while the country’s top virologist has jokingly granted a lockdown pass to the “essential” furry workers traditionally supposed to bring kids their Easter eggs.

For young and old here, Easter Sunday usually means egg hunts in gardens and parks, sticky brown fingers, the satisfying crack of an amputated chocolate rabbit’s ear before it disappears into a rapt child’s mouth.

“People love their chocolates, the Easter eggs, the filled eggs, the little figures we make,” said chocolatier Marleen Van Volsem in her Praleen shop in Halle, south of Brussels. “This is really something very big for us.”

The country has an annual per capita chocolate consumption of six kilograms (over 13 pounds), much of it scoffed during the peak Easter period. “It is a really big season because if we don’t have this, then we won’t … be OK for the year,” Van Volsem said.

Persoone makes about 20% of his annual turnover in the single Easter week. This year, reduced to web sales and pick-ups out of his facility in western Belgium while his luxury shops in tourist cities Bruges and Antwerp are closed? “2% maybe, if we are lucky — not even.”

Guy Gallet, chief of Belgium’s chocolate federation, expects earnings to be greatly reduced across the board this year. He said companies that sell mainly through supermarkets are doing relatively well but firms depending on sales in tourist locations, restaurants or airport shops “are badly hit.”

Persoone has a firm local base of customers but knows how tourists affect the books of so many chocolatiers. “Of course, we won’t see Japanese people or Americans who come to Belgium for a holiday,” he said. “I am afraid if we do not get tourists anymore it will be a disaster, even in the future.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and in some cases death. The immediate challenge is to keep the Easter spirit — and the chocolatiers’ craft — alive in these trying times.

A big part is humor and the use of medical masks made of white chocolate is an obvious one. Persoone puts them on eggs. “It is laughing with a hard thing. And on the other hand, we still have to keep fun, no? It is important to laugh in life.”

Genevieve Trepant of the Cocoatree chocolate shop in Lonzee, southeast of Brussels, couldn’t agree more. And like Persoone, who donated sanitary gel no longer needed in his factory to a local hospital, Trepant also thought of the needy.

That’s how the Lapinou Solidaire and its partner the Lapinou Confine — the Caring Bunny and the Quarantined Bunny, both adorned with a white mask — were born. Customers are encouraged to gift Trepant’s 12-euro ($13) bunnies to local medical staff to show their support. Part of the proceeds go to charity.

One of the country’s top coronavirus experts also knows the medical virtues of laughter. Professor Marc Van Ranst told Belgian children that their Easter treats weren’t at risk. Tongue well in cheek, he told public broadcaster VRT that the government had deeply pondered the issue of delivery rabbits’ movements in these dangerous times. The rabbits bring — Santa-like — eggs to the gardens of children, roving all over Belgium at a time when it is forbidden for the public at large.

“The decision was unanimous: it is an essential profession. Even the police have been informed that they should not obstruct the Easter bunny in its work,” he said. There was a proviso, though. “Rabbits will deliver to the homes of parents, not grandparents,” who are more at risk from COVID-19, Van Ranst said.

Belgian climate minister resigns after protest march scandal

February 05, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — A Belgian environment minister resigned Tuesday after claiming she had confirmation from state security services that massive climate demonstrations in recent weeks were staged as a plot against her.

Though regional environment minister Joke Schauvliege initially failed to step down after admitting she had no such information from intelligence officials, she resigned after talks with her party leadership.

“I said something that was not correct,” Schauvliege said, but insisted it didn’t amount to lying. The opposition said it was outrageous to lie and abuse the name of the state security organization for personal purposes and also said she sought to discredit a just cause that is widely shared in the nation.

“This way, it is tough to continue on as climate minister,” she said at an emotional news conference. Over the past two months, tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated across Belgium for better climate protections and have often targeted Schauvliege’s policies, which they consider woefully insufficient.

At first she welcomed the marches, but over the weekend, she said “a lot of people in these marches don’t realize that they are part of a system which is a setup.” She added that “state security has told me about this.”

In her apology, she said she overreacted because of social media criticism and lack of sleep. Anuna De Wever, the 17-year-old driving force behind the Thursday student protests that gathered up to 30,000 demonstrators, said she was dumbfounded when she heard it. “At first, I had to laugh really hard,” she told VRT network, denying she was a pawn in a plot against anyone.

A new march of schoolchildren and students is set for Thursday. Two weeks ago, 70,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Brussels for the biggest march up to now. Schauvliege was the environment minister for northern Belgium’s Flanders, the biggest, most populous and richest area of Belgium.

Belgian climate minister denounces protest marches as plot

February 05, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — A Belgian environment minister has been forced to climb down over accusations that the massive climate demonstrations in Belgium over the past weeks were a plot and that she had state security confirmation.

Though regional environment minister Joke Schauvliege said Tuesday she had no such information from state security services, she said she would not step down over her remarks. Over the past two months, tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated across the country for better climate protections and have often targeted her policies.

At first she welcomed the marches but over the weekend, she said “a lot of people in these marches don’t realize that they are part of a system which is a setup.” She added that “state security has told me about this.”

Some 70,000 Brussels protesters demand action on climate

January 27, 2019

BRUSSELS (AP) — At least 70,000 people braved cold and rain in Brussels on Sunday to demand the Belgian government and the European Union increase their efforts to fight climate change, the Belgian capital’s fourth climate rally in two months to attract at least 10,000 participants.

The event was described as Belgium’s biggest climate march ever, with police estimating slightly bigger crowds than a similar demonstration last month. Trains from across the nation were so clogged that thousands of people didn’t make the march in time.

Some 35,000 students in Belgium skipped classes Thursday to take their demands for urgent action to prevent global warming to the streets. “Young people have set a good example,” protester Henny Claassen said amid raised banners urging better renewable energy use and improved air quality. “This is for our children, for our grandchildren, and to send a message to politicians.”

Even though the direct impact on Belgian politics was likely to be small since the country currently is led by a caretaker government, the demonstrations have pushed the issue of climate change up the agenda as parties prepare for national and European Union elections in May.

The march ended at the headquarters of the European Union. The 28-nation bloc has been at the vanguard of global efforts to counter climate change but still came in for the protesters’ criticism. “Society as a whole could do a lot more because they’re saying ‘Yes, we’re doing a lot,’ but they’re doing not that much. They could do a lot more,” demonstrator Pieter Van Der Donckt said.

Citizen activism on climate change Sunday was not limited to Belgium. Thousands of people made human chains or held other climate events around France. In Paris, there was a debate inspired by a recent petition for legal action to force the government to set more ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions that create global warming.

President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as a climate crusader, but suffered a serious setback when fuel tax increases meant to help wean France off fossil fuels backfired dramatically, unleashing the yellow vest protests now in their third month.

Associated Press writers Daniela Berretta in Brussels and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

Belgian government on brink of collapse over migration

December 05, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium’s center-right government is teetering on the brink of collapse after Prime Minister Charles Michel took the U.N. migration pact to parliament for approval against the wishes of the biggest coalition partner.

Michel told RTL network early Wednesday that “whoever makes the government collapse shows a lack of responsibility,” clearly targeting the right-wing N-VA party, which is against approving the U.N. pact that Michel has already promised to sign next week in Marrakech, Morocco.

Parliament is expected to find a majority for the pact even without the N-VA but it is difficult to see how the government could stay together afterward. Michel pledged at United Nations headquarters in September that he would go to Marrakech to sign the deal designed to ensure more orderly migration.

Brussels highlights sun-splashed summer with flower carpet

August 16, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — Brussels is highlighting its sun-splashed summer with a Mexican-themed carpet of over half a million flowers on its historic Grand-Place. The UNESCO World Heritage site on Thursday opened up the cobblestones of its market square for a giant display of flowers depicting scenes and symbols from Guanajuato, a Mexican region with an exceptionally rich culture and flower tradition.

The city lays down such a flower carpet every two years but the extreme heat of this summer posed special challenges. Brussels Culture alderwoman Karine Lalieux says that beyond the traditional use of Belgian begonias, dahlias also were used “as this year was very, very hot.”

The carpet, measuring 75 by 24 meters (246 by 79 feet), will be on view until Sunday.

Ethics dispute erupts in Belgium over euthanasia rules

February 16, 2018

A disputed case of euthanasia in Belgium, involving the death of a dementia patient who never formally asked to die, has again raised concerns about weak oversight in a country with some of the world’s most liberal euthanasia laws.

The case is described in a letter provided to The Associated Press, written by a doctor who resigned from Belgium’s euthanasia commission in protest over the group’s actions on this and other cases. Some experts say the case as documented in the letter amounts to murder; the patient lacked the mental capacity to ask for euthanasia and the request for the bedridden patient to be killed came from family members. The co-chairs of the commission say the doctor mistakenly reported the death as euthanasia.

Although euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and has overwhelming public support, critics have raised concerns in recent months about certain practices, including how quickly some doctors approve requests to die from psychiatric patients.

The AP revealed a rift last year between Dr. Willem Distelmans, co-chair of the euthanasia commission, and Dr. Lieve Thienpont, an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. Distelmans suggested some of Thienpont’s patients might have been killed without meeting all the legal requirements. Prompted by the AP’s reporting, more than 360 doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.

Euthanasia — when doctors kill patients at their request — can be granted in Belgium to people with both physical and mental health illnesses. The condition does not need to be fatal, but suffering must be “unbearable and untreatable.” It can only be performed if specific criteria are fulfilled, including a “voluntary, well-considered and repeated” request from the person.

But Belgium’s euthanasia commission routinely violates the law, according to a September letter of resignation written by Dr. Ludo Vanopdenbosch, a neurologist, to senior party leaders in the Belgian Parliament who appoint members of the group.

The most striking example took place at a meeting in early September, Vanopdenbosch writes, when the group discussed the case of a patient with severe dementia, who also had Parkinson’s disease. To demonstrate the patient’s lack of competence, a video was played showing what Vanopdenbosch characterized as “a deeply demented patient.”

The patient, whose identity was not disclosed, was euthanized at the family’s request, according to Vanopdenbosch’s letter. There was no record of any prior request for euthanasia from the patient. After hours of debate, the commission declined to refer the case to the public prosecutor to investigate if criminal charges were warranted.

Vanopdenbosch confirmed the letter was genuine but would not comment further about the specific case details. The two co-chairs of the euthanasia commission, Distelmans and Gilles Genicot, a lawyer, said the doctor treating the patient mistakenly called the procedure euthanasia, and that he should have called it palliative sedation instead. Palliative sedation is the process of drugging patients near the end of life to relieve symptoms, but it is not meant to end life.

“This was not a case of illegal euthanasia but rather a case of legitimate end-of-life decision improperly considered by the physician as euthanasia,” Genicot and Distelmans said in an email. Vanopdenbosch, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote that the doctor’s intention was “to kill the patient” and that “the means of alleviating the patient’s suffering was disproportionate.”

Though no one outside the commission has access to the case’s medical records — the group is not allowed by law to release that information — some critics were stunned by the details in Vanopdenbosch’s letter.

“It’s not euthanasia because the patient didn’t ask, so it’s the voluntary taking of a life,” said Dr. An Haekens, psychiatric director at the Alexianen Psychiatric Hospital in Tienen, Belgium. “I don’t know another word other than murder to describe this.”

Kristof Van Assche, a professor of health law at the University of Antwerp, wrote in an email the commission itself wasn’t breaking the law because the group is not required to refer a case unless two-thirds of the group agree — even if the case “blatantly disregards” criteria for euthanasia.

But without a request from the patient, the case “would normally constitute manslaughter or murder,” he wrote. “The main question is why this case was not deemed sufficiently problematic” to prompt the commission to refer the case to prosecutors.

Vanopdenbosch, who in the letter called himself a “big believer” in euthanasia, cited other problems with the commission. He said that when he expressed concerns about potentially problematic cases, he was immediately “silenced” by others. And he added that because many of the doctors on the commission are leading euthanasia practitioners, they can protect each other from scrutiny, and act with “impunity.”

Vanopdenbosch wrote that when cases of euthanasia are identified that don’t meet the legal criteria, they are not forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office as is required by law, but that the commission itself acts as the court.

In the 15 years since euthanasia was legalized in Belgium, more than 10,000 people have been euthanized, and just one of those cases has been referred to prosecutors. Genicot and Distelmans said the group thoroughly assesses every euthanasia case to be sure all legal conditions have been met.

“It can obviously occur that some debate emerges among members but our role is to make sure that the law is observed and certainly not to trespass it,” they said. They said it was “absolutely false” that Vanopdenbosch had been muzzled and said they regretted his resignation.

Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.

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