20,000 corona deaths: how is Belgium doing compared to other countries? "Don't make false comparisons"

Belgium may not be performing well if you calculate the number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, but comparing to other countries would not be correct, experts underline. So how well is Belgium actually doing, and what do the figures tell us about the 20,000 fatalities?

First of all, over 80 percent of those who succumbed were above 75 years of age. Over 50 percent was older than 85. But this doesn't mean youngsters would be immune: 85 fatalities were related to the age category between 25 to 44. The first wave in spring and the second wave in autumn were each responsible for about 10,000 deaths. 

Relatively spoken, Flanders had fewer Covid deaths (about 150 per 100,000 inhabitants) than Wallonia (200) and Brussels (215). The second wave of the pandemic in Belgium hit Wallonia and Brussels particularly hard. 

Biostatistician Geert Molenberghs (KU Leuven and UHasselt) says Belgium did relatively better in the second wave, if you look at the number of new cases: this was 50 percent up during the second wave, but the number of fatalities was more or less the same. 

So, how well is Belgium doing compared to other countries?

There is a list that puts Belgium among the highest-ranking countries when it comes to the number of casualties per 100,000 inhabitants.  Only San Marino and maybe some other, small states would perform worse. Slovenia, Italy and Bosnia would complete the top-5. 

So how good (or bad) has Belgium been doing so far? Better than this list may suggest, say Geert Molenberghs and Parick Deboosere, a demography professor at the Brussels university VUB. 

This is un unfair comparison, mainly for two reasons, they say. First of all, Belgium has used different norms to report about the number of Covid deaths. "Belgium has strictly followed WHO rules, just like France and Sweden. But it's already more difficult to compare with other countries such as Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, you can even see a clear gap between the number of Covid deaths and surplus mortality", says Deboosere. 

Belgium also counted probable cases, while other countries often underreported

Molenberghs adds: "Do you just count the number of confirmed PCR tests, or also the probable cases? This made a big difference for Belgium, especially in the first wave. We also counted the 'probable' (unconfirmed) cases in nursing homes, countries like Spain didn't."

The Dutch also (heavily) underreported the number of corona deaths, says Molenberghs." If we would take this aspect into account, Belgium would do much better in Europe, coming behind Spain, Italy and the U.K among others.  

And there is more

Yes, Belgium has been hit hard by coronavirus with a lot of deaths, but there's more. "Belgium is densely populated, and we take up a central place within Europe. We are heavily connected to countries abroad. Actually, it would be better to compare Belgium with big cities and their suburbs, instead of with other countries like France, which has a lot more rural areas and much more open space", argues Deboosere. "Take Paris for example: if we would compare Belgium to Greater Paris, you will see that the figures are more or less comparable."

Geert Molenberghs confirms: "If you compare Belgium to the whole state of New York, you will see they have about twice as many deaths per capita (per person of the poulation) than Belgium." 

It is not fair to compare Belgium to other countries. It would be better to compare with big cities and their suburbs

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