Top health officials spar over Belgium's coronavirus ranking

Top health officials spar over Belgium's coronavirus ranking
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A new ranking in which Belgium came in as the worst-performing country for its coronavirus response has top health officials spatting over its significance.

An analysis of 21 OECD countries' response to the coronavirus released Thursday showed that Belgium was the worst-ranked among the group of the world's richest nations.

"Figures don't tell everything," Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block said, linking to comments by state virologist Steven Van Gucht who slammed the ranking's credibility.

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"This is what happens when economists get involved in things they don't understand well," Van Gucht, a virologist with federal public health institute Sciensano, told Het Nieuwsblad.

Virology professor Steven Van Gucht told The Brussels Times in an interview in April that he believed in the Belgian methodology. While other countries might have been underreporting the number of mortalities in retirement homes, the Belgian figures are as accurate as they can be, especially after comparing the excess mortality with previous years.

But in a direct clap back to De Block, virologist Emmanuel André —Van Gucht's former Francophone counterpart at Sciensano— said the minister should not be too quick to dismiss the evidence and learn from past mistakes.

"Well... numbers don't say everything, but they do say something. We cannot deny everything as a whole if we want to learn from our mistakes.

The ranking by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) gave nations a score out of four for their tackling of the pandemic according to three indicators: testing, excess mortality and provision of non-Covid-19 health care.

The ranking also balanced the policy response against three risk factors: the prevalence of obesity in the population, the share of the elderly population and the rate of international arrivals. 

With a score of 2.11 out of 4, Belgium landed among the poorest performing nations, along with Spain, Italy and the UK, who nevertheless all scored slightly higher than Belgium.

Belgium's coronavirus response has been in the limelight for weeks as global data trackers indicate that the country has the world's highest death rate per capita.

Government officials have defended their counting methods, saying they were among the most transparent since Belgium's official figures also included deaths who were suspected to be Covid-19 deaths but which could not be confirmed through testing.

De Block, who has been harshly criticised by health care workers over her response to the pandemic, also defended Belgium's counting approach, saying it was "the most detailed" in Europe.

Gabriela Galindo
The Brussels Times

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