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Why Is Belgium A Europe Hotspot For COVID-19 Deaths?

The country’s in-depth recording of cases may see it top the rankings, but the more accurate picture can help tackle the outbreak.

In Flanders – the region worst hit by the virus – many are asking “why is it so bad here?

A large elderly population? Some densely populated cities? (although you wouldn’t know that during the lockdown).

More than 1,100 people have died in Belgium
Inside one of the worst hit cities in Europe

Was it the fact many from here went skiing in Italy at the start of the outbreak and picked up the virus. Or were mistakes made from the start?

That is certainly a question many have been asking in the city of Sint-Truiden where we met the mayor, Veerle Heeren.

She has faced questions and criticism after allowing a large carnival to go ahead at the end of February.

Thousands attended and doctors told us the virus will have been allowed to spread.

But the mayor insists no one could have known what was to come back then.

BERGAMO, ITALY - APRIL 3: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) A member of the Italian Red Cross walks through an alley in the old town during his home visit to COVID-19 positive patients on April 3, 2020 in Bergamo, Italy. The number of new COVID-19 cases appears to be decreasing in Italy, including in the province of Bergamo, one of its hardest-hit areas. But as the infection rate slows, life is still far from normal. A local newspaper, the Eco di Bergamo, estimates that the province has lost roughly 4,800 people to coronavirus - almost twice an official tally that only counts hospital deaths - and everyone here knows someone who's fallen ill:  a neighbor, a family member, a relative, a friend or an acquaintance. The Italian Red Cross, which runs an ambulance service here, continues to field constant calls for help. With only a small portion of its 600-person volunteer crew and 38 paid staff able to report for duty, those who remain work shifts of up to 20 hours long.  (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
Coronavirus: Lockdown lessons from Italy

She said: “Nobody spoke about corona at that time.

“You know, it started with us on 9 March, the beginning of March.

“And the first measures from our national government were taken on 13 March.”

The mayor, who has been applauded for her handling of the crisis since, knows what it is to face the nightmare of COVID-19.

Her husband spent weeks in a coma with the virus and remains in hospital.

She says it has been tough personally but she felt the need to keep on working, to help the community.

Sint-Truiden is in Limburg – the worst affected of Flanders’ five provinces – where hospitals, care homes and families have been feeling the pressure of tackling the virus.

Dr Raf De Keersmaecker, chairman of the Limburg Province Association of GPs, knows of many colleagues who have caught COVID, some ending up in hospital.

We meet him outside a surgery where patients not showing virus symptoms are taken to one building and those who are taken to another.

Doctors in full protective suits and masks accompany the latter.

He has a firm theory on why Belgium’s death rate is so high compared to other countries – greater transparency.

He said: “We record everything. Deaths everywhere, not just in hospitals.”

And that includes deaths suspected to be from COVID but not actually tested. More of those deaths are in care homes.

Dr De Keersmaecker said: “If we think the people are dying of COVID, we count it.

“Of course, that (accounts for) the higher level of dead people in our country.

“In most countries they don’t do that. They only take deaths from the hospitals. We even have people dying at home.”

Coronavirus: Lockdown around the world
This is what life on Earth looks like, April 2020

The differences in recording COVID deaths make it hard to compare statistics between nations and could mean Belgium’s figure is more realistic or even lower than data now suggests.

It could also mean the number of deaths from COVID in other nations is higher than thought.

Health ministry spokesman Emmanuel Andre recognises Belgium’s way of recording deaths pushes the country to the top of the rankings but is unapologetic.

He argues it is the best way to get a true picture of what is really going on.

He said: “So the point of including suspected cases is to get the best picture of the level of this outbreak in our community, including outside the hospitals.

“And if we know this then we can better act on controlling this outbreak at the source of infection.” Race to develop a vaccine could leave a lasting legacy

The aim in Belgium now is to test everyone with COVID symptoms whether in hospital, care homes and the wider community.

That will be a costly and lengthy process, but will tell the story of what is really happening.

But until other countries do the same comparisons between nations may be meaningless.


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