In recent weeks, Belgium has found itself in the spotlight of media worldwide, mainly due to alarming statistics – the number of COVID-19 victims per 100,000 inhabitants is the highest in the world. To date, more than 7,000 people have died of the disease, with a total of over 45,000 cases of new coronavirus. While Belgium’s way of counting coronavirus victims differs from the rest of Europe and the overall picture of coping with the pandemic is not nearly as bleak as in Italy or Spain, the situation is improving only very slowly. The planned easing of measures is thus still subject to change. So what do the numbers really say and how does the kingdom cope with the pandemic?
Belgium, like other European countries, recorded a sharp increase in cases in the first half of March and special measures have been in place in the country since March 12. Nevertheless, the notorious curve is flattening only slowly, and when the government presented a multi-stage plan to dismantle the measures on April 24, Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès repeatedly warned that all data are indicative and everything depends on further developments – especially the daily number of new hospitalizations. This has stabilised at around 200 a day in recent days and is not declining in any significant way. However, Belgium is fighting not only with the pandemic and the consequential economic crisis, but also with its international reputation. The sad statistics make it seem as a risk country for many, and some politicians fear that a misunderstanding of statistics could damage the country’s international image.
So what’s behind the high numbers? In terms of casualties, the Belgian counting system is very different from the rest of the world. Of the total number of 7,207 victims, only 46% died in hospital, the other victims were recorded in retirement homes and similar facilities. However, only 11% of those who succumbed to the disease outside hospitals tested positive for coronavirus – as many as 89% of cases were mere suspicions. From the very beginning, the Belgian government has sought to be as transparent and contextualised as possible, but has remained isolated in its efforts – other countries count only proven positive cases. According to government officials, for a relevant comparison with other countries, it is necessary to divide the numbers of victims by two.
However, even these “recalculated” numbers are not very optimistic. Several factors probably play a role, but even Belgian epidemiologists are not clear about the exact causes. In the first place, it is the age structure of society and a large number of infected seniors. Belgium has a very advanced system of care for the elderly, which in addition to retirement homes also contains a number of day care centres – where the disease seems to have spread rapidly. At present, the numbers of hospitalizations are rising mostly due to cases from retirement homes, and according to virologist Marc Van Ranst of KU Leuven, two parallel epidemics are taking place in Belgium – among the majority population and in facilities for the elderly, which have not been adequately protected despite the visit ban. The situation is made worse by the population density, which is one of the highest in Europe – especially in northern Flanders, where the number of victims is also the highest.
Belgium thus has a long way to go. Although the health care system is still managing the situation (even at a time when the pandemic peaked and there were over 5,000 people in hospitals, the capacity of hospitals was still sufficient), the measures lasting 7 weeks did not bring about significant changes in the number of newly infected seniors. As part of the efforts to manage the transition to post-lockdown life, the Belgians are now bracing for new measures – among them, mandatory face-coverage in public transportation and more intense contact tracing of those who test positive.