Recriminations as Belgium tops Europe's grim league table of Covid-19 deaths

Country that hosts Nato and EU headquarters is now 'worst hit'

epa08363981 A mother and her son wearing face masks in front of European Commission headquarters during a press conference of European Council President Charles Michel and EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen on the Coronavirus pandemic in Brussels, Belgium, 15 April 2020.  EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Belgium has announced it is forming a new force of coronavirus hunters to tackle the pandemic that has given it Europe’s highest death rate.

New figures announced today showed that the country with a population of 11 million had suffered 5,998 deaths with 40,000 contracting Covid 19.

In a grim league table the small European country has a death rate of 517 per million compared to 310 for its neighbour France and 243 for Britain.

Questions are being asked why Belgium, which hosts the headquarters of the EU and Nato in Brussels, has suffered so significantly.

Efforts now getting underway to slowdown the infection rate even as the country starts to modify its lockdown. The Belgium authorities are now rolling out a plan to recruit 2,000 coronavirus trackers who will find people who fail to download a new contract tracer app and might have the virus. If these people are thought to be have contracted Covid 19 they will be asked to test and if positive to self-isolate.

It is believed the virus entered the country when a group of nine Belgians were evacuated from Wuhan, China in early February. It spread further in March when people returned from skiing holidays in Northern Italy.

The Belgium government defends the high numbers saying that’s it because it counts deaths differently to others by including all fatalities in nursing homes.

“If it’s important to be as transparent as possible, you have to get your numbers right,” Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said, adding that not all residents of nursing homes died because of the coronavirus. “You understand that this elevates our numbers.”

The region worst hit by the virus is Flanders where it has been suggested the elderly population and high-density cities are a factor.

In Sint-Truiden, Flanders, the authorities were criticised for allowing a carnival to go ahead in late February despite the brewing crisis.

But one doctor at a local hospital said the reason for high death rate was Belgium’s transparency. “We record everything. Deaths everywhere, not just in hospitals,” said Dr Raf De Keersmaecker told Sky News. “If we think the people are dying of COVID, we count it. Of course, that accounts for the higher level of dead people in our country.”

The Belgium approach is reflected in figures elsewhere. In Britain the total reported deaths of 16,000 could be higher after the Office for National Statistics released figures today showing that in the week before April 10 there was 8,000 deaths above a five-year average.

Elsewhere in Europe it appears that those countries who enforced an early lockdown strategy are seeing the move pay off. Norway and Denmark, both countries with liberal values, enforced draconian measures early on and are now seeing a partial lifting of restrictions.

By comparison, Sweden had a relaxed approach to lockdown but now has 15,000 cases with 175 deaths per million. Norway has 33 deaths per million and Denmark 64.

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