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Analysis: The lesser-talked-about deaths from COVID-19

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A resident walks down a corridor in Housing Establishment for Dependant Elderly People in Brest, western France
A resident walks down a corridor in Housing Establishment for Dependant Elderly People in Brest, western France   -   Copyright  LOIC VENANCE/AFP
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Sadly, yesterday the death rate in France surpassed 10,000 as the country announced a record number of daily fatalities from COVID-19.

But, the latest deadly spike was perhaps most glaring in the country's nursing homes - some 820 elderly people succumbed to the awful disease in recent days.

“The tsunami has entered the building, it's a disaster” is how one director vividly described what was happening in his care home in the central Loire Valley region, where at least 10 people have died recently and 19 others are presenting symptoms.

As the virus spreads, there's a similar story of suffering in care homes across the EU.

In Spain, the army found the bodies of dozens of dead - and apparently abandoned - elderly people at retirement homes. Health officials said that in some cases, where the cause of death was suspected to be linked to COVID-19, the deceased residents were left in their beds until properly-equipped funeral staff were available to come to take care of the bodies.

Authorities from the Belgian region of Flanders have reported more than 600 probable deaths among residents of care homes. In recent days, at least 24 people have died in care homes in Scotland.

It is a horrific story that is being repeated again and again in different cities, regions and countries across Europe.

And, unfortunately, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Statistically, the coronavirus is shown to prey mostly on the elderly - death rates are highest among those over the age of 70 - and social distancing is more difficult in nursing homes, not least of all because staff members who live in the local community are having to continue to come into the home to provide care, despite the risks to both them and their residents.

Many of those same carers are now also having to face the twin challenge of a lack of equipment and staff shortages.

And all of this is likely to turn out to be much worse than we currently realise. Many countries are, at the moment, only officially announcing daily death tolls in hospitals, not in care homes or in the community.

Even among those who are casting the net wider in their reporting of figures, there are limitations. France changed its way of counting yesterday, to include nursing homes in its figures. But the head of its public health authority said that the count was still not complete as some care homes had yet to report their numbers. Many care homes and mortuaries simply don’t have test kits - they are unable to officially identify whether someone has died of COVID-19 or not.

In the summer of 2003 a heatwave hit France, killing what initially seemed like dozens of elderly people. Then, it was revised to hundreds of fatalities. It was only months later that statisticians said it was likely to have been closer to 15,000.

Tragically, the same thing is happening again, but on a more frightening scale. And again it is likely to be many months before we get a true sense of the horrors this virus has really inflicted on Europe.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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