Belgium's Covid-19 bill already at €3,160 per inhabitant

Belgium's Covid-19 bill already at €3,160 per inhabitant
Various governments have spent €36.4 billion, with more money being spent on supporting the economy than on fighting the disease itself. Credit: Belga

Belgium's various governments have pulled out all the stops to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and support the economy in recent years, amounting to a total bill of €36.4 billion so far – which comes down to €3,160 per capita.

Before the Ukraine crisis on 17 February, a report by the Federal Planning Bureau displays that Belgium had weathered the coronavirus crisis relatively well in economic terms, albeit with up and down fluctuations.

"In 2022, the Belgian economy will grow by 3%, thanks in part to household consumption. The impact of Covid-19 on the labour market remains limited and investments continue to increase," the report said.

However, roughly €36.4 billion (€3,160 per Belgian) has already been spent on combatting the pandemic in Belgium over the past two years – and that amount is still rising, according to figures published by the High Council of Finance last weekend.

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The Federal Government has spent most of that money: since 2020, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo's government already paid €27 billion to say afloat during the crisis.

For the regions, the bill has so far amounted to "only" €9.4 billion, a difference that is due to the way competencies are distributed in Belgium: classic protective measures for families, such as temporary unemployment or the bridging right for the self-employed (which need the biggest budgets) are federal competences.

The regional authorities have mainly focused on supporting businesses. At first, these were fixed premiums for companies that were forced to close down, but the system was later adapted to depend on the loss of turnover per company.

Supporting households

With €14.2 billion, the largest slice of that bill went to support families, while companies could count on €12.6 billion in support so far.

Additionally, workers made use of the more flexible regime of temporary unemployment: at the peak of the crisis (just after the first lockdown was announced in 2020) more than 800,000 people were temporarily unemployed.

According to figures from the National Bank, an average of 267,000 workers were still temporarily unemployed each month, and 69,000 self-employed people claimed bridging pensions in the first eleven months of last year. Together, these two systems absorbed €11.2 billion, 30% of the entire Covid bill.

In practice, that means that more money was spent on supporting the economy than on fighting the disease itself.

For this, the 'bill' currently stands at €9.6 billion, with most of that money (€7.4 billion) coming from the Federal Government. A substantial part of that money went to the hospitals, which had to cope with the constant flow of Covid-19 patients but also to compensate for lost income.

Holding one's breath for autumn

The regions, on the other hand, had to invest in extra hands and protective equipment for the residential care homes, and in testing and tracing, as those are both regional competencies.

Meanwhile, the bill continues to rise: the figures from the High Council of Finance are up to 19 January 2022, but the coronavirus is still around and everyone is holding their breath for the autumn.

During the federal budget audit, which was concluded just before the Easter holidays, a further €825 million was set off for the extra resources that the Federal Government had to spend on Covid-19 management in recent months.

Additionally, although it has been dragging on for more than two years now, most of these are one-off expenses that will not recur year after year but will instead disappear along with the virus. However, that does not mean that the €36 billion – for which additional debts were incurred – will never have to be repaid.

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