Belgium now has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the European Union, but officials insist that it is because they have been completely transparent with the data.
With more than 11.5 million inhabitants, Belgium has more than 4,800 deaths and an average of around 419 per million inhabitants, ahead of Spain with 409 per million, the second highest in the EU.
Belgium’s neighbors, Britain and France, have averages of 202 and 274 per million respectively, with a total of 14,000 and 18,000 reported deaths for populations six times larger.
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes had to explain why this was the case on Wednesday, and said that the government “had made the choice of full transparency when reporting the deaths linked to COVID-19”, even if that had resulted in “sometimes overestimated figures”.
Most official counts probably reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections, as many countries only test the most severe cases.
Unlike some countries, Belgium takes full account of the dramatic situation of retirement homes.
In more than 1,500 facilities across the country, the figures include deaths that are considered to be related to the coronavirus even if it has not been proven by tests, a choice that has not been taken by many others.
“In Europe, no country counts like the others. We have the most detailed method, “Health Minister Maggie De Block told LN24 television.
She said the ministry may in the future adopt a counting method that would allow Belgium to compare its results with other countries, but did not provide any details.
– “Human social and ethical tragedy” –
Some doctors have complained that deaths from hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other causes have been grouped into the COVID-19 category, but Emmanuel Andre, spokesperson for the national health authorities, insisted on the fact that the broad Belgian method of counting “is necessary”.
The virus specialist explained that “the accepted practice is to take suspect cases into account” when monitoring the spread of an epidemic.
Deaths from COVID-19 that have been confirmed positive have so far been only about five percent of those reported by retirement homes, but Andre said that increased testing in these facilities would increase much higher rate in the coming days.
It would also allow authorities to better measure the extent of the spread of COVID-19, he added.
Sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers said that “a social and ethical human tragedy” had taken place “invisible behind the walls” of retirement homes as Belgian authorities focused on the ability of hospitals to cope with the pandemic.
“What proportion of deaths could have been avoided if people had been hospitalized” for other conditions, Pleyers asked in a comment published by the newspaper Le Soir.
The government plans to increase the number of coronavirus tests provided to retirement homes by ten.
But the goal of 210,000 kits “is not enough to test everyone,” said Vincent Fredericq, secretary general of Femarbel, the industry’s leading federation in French-speaking Belgium.
He said he cared for 160,000 residents across the country and employed 110,000 people who were also potential vectors of the virus.
“In the Brussels region, 95% of the staff use public transport, whether it is the metro, trams or buses, which are unfortunately good places to be contaminated,” noted Fredericq.
© 2020 AFP