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Analysis: Can we trust Belgium's COVID-19 death statistics?

Virus Outbreak Belgium King
Virus Outbreak Belgium King Copyright Daina Le Hardic/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.
Copyright Daina Le Hardic/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.
By Darren McCaffrey, Political Editor
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Belgium is facing an unusual problem, our political editor Darren McCaffrey writes. It's being accused of being “too honest” and overestimating the country’s death toll.


How many people are dying because of COVID-19?

Well, China has been accused of a cover-up, of simply not reporting the true horrific scale of deaths in a country of over one billion people. 

“It can't be right," a Wuhan resident told Radio Free Asia on Friday. "The incinerators have been working round the clock, so how can so few people have died?"

In some parts of Europe, people have also been accusing their governments of not being open in the figures they have published. In Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, daily death tolls are hospital-only fatalities, which don't include those in care homes and in the community.

Indeed, worryingly in the UK 41,000 people may have already died, which is more than double the official figure of 17,337, according to Financial Times analysis of the latest data published on Wednesday.

Belgium, however, is facing the opposite problem: of being “too honest” and overestimating the country’s death toll. The country currently has the highest death rate per capita from COVID-19 in the world.

Yes, you read that properly, in the world.

It’s a country of 11 million people, which - at the time of writing - has over 6,000 recorded deaths. But, unlike elsewhere, more than half of those deaths have been reported from retirement homes. And of the total deaths that occurred in the homes, four per cent were cases confirmed by a coronavirus test and 96 per cent were suspected ones.

The Prime Minister, Sophie Wilmès, said the government “made the choice of full transparency when communicating deaths” linked to the virus, even if it resulted in “numbers that were sometimes overestimated”.

Ultimately, Belgium might be providing us with a more accurate reflection, if one that is a little exaggerated, of what’s happening, compared to other country’s figures which do not seem to be telling the full, horrific story.

But, that is exactly the problem: Belgium is being compared to these countries and that’s now starting to concern some people here. Flanders‘ Minister for Tourism, Zuhal Demir, said she was worried about the image the country is projecting, while the “fight to attract tourists will be crucial once the borders reopen. I hear from the sector that we are labelled a ‘high-risk country’. It’s not good.”

There are also concerns that, even when the crisis is over, the high death rates could impact on inward investment, with businesses deciding to go elsewhere. The Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst thinks the system should be changed.

“If you count everyone who dies in one of our 1,500 care centres, it is as if no one ever dies from something else anymore,” Van Ranst said. “Then, you get crazy numbers,” he added.

The daily death tolls are a marker for populations to track the horrendous spread of this virus in their own country and also to offer hope when the numbers start to fall.

People, too, use them to compare themselves with other countries, ‘how well are we doing?’ they ask, especially when it comes to their neighbours.

Often, however, these are simply unfair comparisons, as Belgium seems to be discovering.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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