Belgium has the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths per head of population of any country in the world – but ministers say this is only because they are being more transparent with their data.
The European nation had reported 4,857 deaths from coronavirus as of Thursday, an increase of 417 in 24 hours, despite having a relatively small population of 11.6million people.
But, unlike many of its European neighbours, it is counting deaths outside of hospital and deaths where the patient had coronavirus symptoms but had not been tested in those figures.
These deaths account for almost half of Belgium’s total, meaning that the true scale of coronavirus deaths in other countries could be double the official figures if that trend is replicated elsewhere.
A graph showing the number of coronavirus deaths per day in countries when compared to their population size. The line represents a seven-day rolling average, meaning it shows trends in the data rather than precise figures. It reveals Belgium has the highest rate in the world, but minister say this is because they are being more transparent with their data
A gravedigger prepares a pit for burial in the Verrewinkel Cemetery in Brussels, Belgium, where work has tripled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic
In fact, Belgium is now considering producing a second, lower, daily total meaning it can be fairly compared with its European neighbours, the Wall Street Journal reports.
According to the latest report by Belgium’s Federal Public Service for Health, just 49 per cent of the country’s total official deaths occurred in hospital where cases of coronavirus had been confirmed.
Another 49 per cent died in care homes, while around 1 per cent of cases died at home or in other locations.
Of the deaths that occurred in care homes, 94 per cent had not been diagnosed with coronavirus but did have suspected symptoms.
This means the country’s death total would have almost halved, if it had used the same methods as other European nations.
‘In Europe, no country counts like the others. We have the most detailed method,’ Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block told the television news channel LN24.
It comes after repeated warnings from officials in France, Spain, Italy and the UK that deaths in care homes are being ignored leading to a ‘hidden epidemic’.
In the UK alone, 4,000 people are thought to have died in homes from coronavirus and are not being counted among the country’s 13,729 total deaths.
A month ago, the mayor of the Italian town of Bergamo – at the epicentre of the country’s outbreak – issued a similar warning about care homes there.
Medical staff gather for a briefing in the corridor of a nursing home in Huesca, Spain, where 46 coronavirus patients were being treated as of April 16
An elderly coronavirus patient lies in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Vigo, northwestern Spain, on April 16
‘There are significant numbers of people who have died but whose death hasn’t been attributed to the coronavirus because they died at home or in a nursing home and so they weren’t swabbed,’ Giorgio Gori said
Until the start of April, France had also omitted care home data from its official tally – before reporting 1,416 additional deaths from care homes on April 3.
However, the figure was issued with the caveat that a third of care homes had yet to report data.
Meanwhile leaked regional government data in Spain suggested that 57 per cent of the country’s death toll from the virus between March 8 and April 8 was in care homes, The Guardian reported.
Some doctors in Belgium have complained that deaths caused by hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular pathologies and other causes have been lumped into the COVID-19 category.
However, Emmanuel Andre, a spokesman for national health authorities, insisted the broad Belgian method of counting ‘is necessary.’
The virus specialist explained that ‘the accepted practice is to take suspected cases into account’ when tracking the spread of an epidemic.
COVID-19 deaths that were confirmed by a positive test have represented only around five per cent of those reported by retirement homes up to now, but Andre said that increased testing in those facilities would push the rate much higher in coming days.
It would also allow authorities to better measure the extent of COVID-19’s spread, he added.
Doctor Katharina Franz and paramedic Andreas Hankel try to resuscitate a coronavirus patient at a clinic in Hanau, Germany
Sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers said ‘a social and ethical human tragedy’ had played out ‘unseen, behind the walls’ of retirement homes as Belgian officials focused on whether hospitals had intensive care capacity to deal with the pandemic.
‘What proportion of deaths could have been avoided if people had received hospital care’ for other pathologies, Pleyers asked in commentary published by the newspaper Le Soir.
The government plans to multiply by 10 the number of coronavirus tests provided to retirement homes.
But the target of 210,000 kits ‘is not enough to test everyone,’ said Vincent Fredericq, general secretary of Femarbel, the leading federation for the sector in French-speaking Belgium.
He said it cared for 160,000 residents across the country and employed 110,000 staff who were also potential vectors of the virus.
‘In the Brussels region, 95 per cent of the personnel use public transport, either the metro, trams or buses, which are unfortunately good places to become contaminated,’ Fredericq noted.