COVID-19: how is Belgium doing compared to other countries?

Does Belgium have more or fewer deaths than other European countries during this corona crisis? It's a question that pops up regularly in times like these. Since we know how many patients are succumbing in hospital, it is a little bit easier to answer this question, but it still remains a complicated matter. 

First of all: we should not compare apples and oranges. Belgium is now including all deaths in its daily figures, i.e. confirmed corona deaths in hospitals together with deaths in care homes, including many unconfirmed COVID-19 cases. It is not always clear whether the people who died in a care home actually succumbed because of the novel corona virus. So this is why our daily rate may look high.

In order to make the right comparison, we should only take into account the deaths in hospital, like the countries listed below do (France, Netherlands, U.K. and Italy). Since a couple of days, these deaths are reported separately from the care home deaths by the National Crisis Centre. The following graphic shows the number of deaths per million inhabitants: 

The Belgian number of Covid-19 deaths totalled 3,903 yesterday, with 2,069 (about 53 percent) passing away in hospital. If you take into account Belgium's population of about 11 million, this equals 181 certain corona deaths per million inhabitants. This puts Belgium well below Italy, and closer to the U.K. and the Netherlands, although these are still performing better, about 10 percent (Netherlands) or 20 percent (France). 

The Belgian virologist Steven Van Gucht has no explanation for the worse Belgian score, but says it's important to wait until the pandemic is finished to have a global view. However, he says that the fact that Belgium is densely populated country, may be a factor that is playing against us. Belgium's population density is about 20 times higher than France, but on the other hand it is lower than in the Netherlands and these still have a better score. 

Meanwhile, it turns out that hardest region in Italy, Lombardy, is also the most densely populated. 

COVID-19 or not?

Another issue how you interpret somebody's death: was it COVID-19, or rather another disease which the patient had been nursing for some time? "In many cases, corona victims had other underlying diseases, with COVID-19 causing an earlier death than would have been the case otherwise", says Van Gucht. If we want to compare, all countries should apply the very same criteria, but this is maybe not the case. 

A good thing would be to look at the higher mortality rate for each country (death rate now compared to death rate in the same period before times of corona), but these figures are not available everywhere yet. Van Gucht also underlines that "this is not a competition, and every patient who succumbs is one too many."