A Belgian care home has been struck by a Christmas tragedy after 18 of its residents reportedly died with coronavirus after a visit from a man dressed as Santa Claus. 

The visit to the Hemelrijck care home in Mol, Antwerp, in early December is being blamed for infecting dozens of staff and residents after the unidentified man fell ill and tested positive three days after turning up. 

Now local media say 18 residents are dead and 121 have caught Covid-19, as well as 36 staff. Five residents died over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Mirror reported.

The man, pictured wearing a face mask, was dressed as Sinterklass – a Dutch figure based on Saint Nicholas – and was welcomed alongside his controversial helpers in black face known as Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’).

It is unclear if he was responsible for the initial outbreak and unlikely that he is behind all the infections, but the visit has been dubbed a ‘super-spreader’ event. 

And there are fears that there could be more tragedy ahead, after local mayor Wim Caeyers said: ‘We’re expecting up to ten difficult days’ on Christmas Day. 

The Mayor of Mol had said earlier this month: ‘It has been a very black day for the care home. 

‘It is a very great mental strain to bear for the man that played St Nicholas, as well as for the organisers and the staff.’

His administration also branded the home ‘totally irresponsible’ after pictures showed some residents not wearing masks and limited social distancing. 

However, one of Belgium’s top virologists says he doubts the Father Christmas figure could have caused so many infections. 

Marc Van Ranst, from KU Leuven university, said: ‘Even for a super-spreader, these are too many infections at once.’ 

He singled out poor ventilation as a much more likely cause, but said the visit was a ‘stupid idea’. 

Belgium has been battered by coronavirus and recorded 19,158 deaths – meaning that it has one of the world’s worst death rates when population is accounted for. 

It has also reported more than 638,000 cases. 

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