A violent New Year's Eve: healthcare workers and police raise the alarm

In several places in Belgium, New Year's Eve was turbulent. Firefighters, healthcare workers and policemen were bombarded with stones and flares. In Brussels alone, police had to intervene 700 times, 160 people were arrested. Some 30 cars went up in flames.

The most harrowing incident happened in the capital. There, paramedics were shot at with fireworks while trying to resuscitate a person who had fallen from the fourth floor. Once it became clear that the victim would not make it, the paramedics were forced to flee. But the incidents were not just limited to the capital, emergency services were also under fire in other places. In Willebroek, firefighters were besieged with fireworks when they tried to put out a fire. At a party in Kortrijk, two policemen were injured. And in Antwerp several police vehicles sustained damage after the police were besieged with stones and fireworks.

The same sentiment can be heard in the hospitals. Kurt Anseeuw, head of Antwerp's emergency department ZNA Stuivenberg says aggresive behaviour towards doctors and nurses has unfortunately been happening ​ more frequently lately. 'On a New Year's Eve, three times as many patients come in compared to a typical Sunday afternoon. But everyone takes it for granted to get the same service. We put in extra people even though hospitals are struggling with tight, if not non-existent budgets. It is mostly goodwill from doctors and nurses themselves. As a society, then, realise what you are doing when you tolerate or normalise violence and aggression against healthcare workers. And don't be surprised that fewer and fewer doctors and nurses are willing to take up that position.'

The causes are multifaceted but probably have to do with the intoxication of revellers combined with an underlying frustration towards the authorities. Isabel Verwee, a researcher at the Vias Institute surveyed more than 800 emergency workers early this year about the violence they face while doing their jobs. It showed that more than half of those questioned had experienced physical violence in the past 12 months. These were incidents in which 52 per cent of respondents suspected alcohol use among perpetrators, while 33 per cent also cited drug use as a possible explanation.

Fireworks ban or house arrest

Belgium was not the only place where New Year's Eve became a scene of violence. After the end-of-year riots in Amsterdam, Mayor Femke Halsema on Sunday called for the introduction of a nationwide fireworks ban. But Antwerp authorities do not see that as the solution to the phenomenon. "It just comes down to taking decisive action against such rioters. Moreover, we also see other criminal acts, such as attacking local residents and emergency services, vandalising street furniture and vehicles, and setting fires. These are not going to disappear with a blanket ban on the sale of fireworks."

Antwerp experimented this year with preventive house arrest, an administrative measure to contribute to public peace and safety. We will now evaluate that measure," said Johan Vermant, spokesman for mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA).

The police union NSPV is asking the government for a zero-tolerance policy towards this kind of aggression. 'A tit-for-tat policy is pressing', ​ says the Unions president Carlo Medo. He calls for effective punishments and a faster procedure. ​ In addition, the union also calls for a better fight against illegal trade in fireworks.




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