One week into lockdown: how has the coronavirus spread in Belgium?

One week into lockdown: how has the coronavirus spread in Belgium?
Mask prices are not regulated in Belgium, which allows free competition between sellers. Credit: Belga

Three weeks after Belgium was hit by the new coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on 1 March, hundreds of new cases continue to be detected daily, with Flanders emerging as the country's epicentre for the outbreak, accounting for over half of the total 4,269 cases.

While Belgium is still not carrying out systematic testing, which some experts have said could help stem the outbreak faster by weeding out asymptomatic cases, between 2,000 and 2,500 tests are carried out every day, with 30,000 patients tested as of Monday.

As the death toll in Belgium hit 122 on Tuesday, health officials said that the virus would continue to spread and that they expected current tendencies to become "more pronounced" in the coming days.

As the country marks a week since the start of a three-week lockdown —which officials have said risks being extended—, here is an overview of the current situation in Belgium.

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Flanders as the pandemic's epicentre

On 4 February, Belgium reported its first confirmed Covid-19 case, a repatriated man from Wuhan, the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak, who was asymptomatic but was preventatively quarantined.

On 1 March, Flanders confirmed Belgium's second case of Covid-19, which heralded in the current outbreak as travellers returned home after the carnival holidays and skiing season.

According to the latest official data on Tuesday, 61% of confirmed cases in Belgium have been recorded in Flanders (2,594 cases), where a majority of the new cases detected each day have been located since the start of the outbreak.

Barring the 3% of patients for whom no data has been made available, Wallonia is Belgium's second hardest-hit region, with 25% of cases (1,058), followed by Brussels, which accounts for 11% (488) of the country's total case count.

With the highest number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the eastern province of Limburg is the most affected area in Flanders, followed by the Flemish Periphery of Brussels, West Flanders and the province of Antwerp.

Wallonia's Hainaut province, where authorities said a new infection cluster was emerging as Belgium's count reached 1,000, is the most affected one in the French-speaking region, with its count of nearly 400 cases at the weekend dwarfing that of Liège or Namur.

Hospitalisations recede for second day in a row

After a steady climb since 15 March saw the number of new coronavirus hospitalisations peak at the weekend, Tuesday's figures showed that hospital admissions declined slightly for the second time this week.

Saturday 21 March is so far the day during which the highest number of hospital admissions were recorded since the start of the outbreak, with 355 additional patients hospitalised, bringing the total count to 1,859 on Tuesday.

Since the weekend, the number of new hospitalisations has lingered between 250 and 290 daily, excluding the peak on Saturday and a lower figure of 214 reported on Friday.

The number of patients placed in an intensive care unit (ICU) has also consistently climbed since Friday 20 March, reaching 381 on Tuesday, when the sharpest jump of ICU admissions in 24 hours (59) was also recorded.

In updates given at the weekend, health officials said they were still unable at this stage in the pandemic to tell whether Belgium was close to seeing the peak of the outbreak, which would require a successive decrease in the number of new infections and deaths.

Belgian hospitals were still operating with sufficient capacity in their ICUs, according to Steven Van Gucht, a virologist leading the government's coronavirus response, who said that less than a third of ICU beds were occupied as of Saturday.

Since 13 March, a total of 410 patients have been discharged from the hospital, with 60 hospital discharges reported on Tuesday.

Death toll hits 122

Since the first three deaths were recorded on 10 and 11 March, Belgium's death toll has continued to rise daily, standing at 122 as of Tuesday.

One day after authorities confirmed that a 90-year-old resident hospitalised in Brussels was Belgium's first Covid-19 fatality, two more deaths were reported.

With 34 reported deaths, Tuesday marks Belgium's deadliest day since the start of the pandemic, undoing two days of low death counts, after authorities reported eight deaths on Sunday and 13 on Monday.

The death count on Tuesday also dwarfs the counts of 20 March and 21 March, when 16 and 30 deaths had been recorded respectively.

The vast majority of patients who have died after contracting Covid-19 were between 65 and 84 years old, followed by patients over 85.

Less than 20 patients out of the total 122 to have died as a result of the pandemic belonged to the 45-65 age group, with an even smaller proportion aged between 25 and 44.

'Our chance is now'

Reporting the latest figures in the daily press conference on the pandemic on Tuesday, a spokesperson for Belgium's Crisis Centre told reporters that Belgium was now at a crucial moment in the fight to effectively curb the spread of the pandemic in the country.

Since Friday 20 March, the number of new cases has climbed by at least over 300 every day, peaking on Saturday 21 March, with 586 new cases confirmed.

With the measures introduced last Wednesday expected to show results tangible results in the form of reduced hospital admissions within a period of between 10 to 14 days, spokesperson Yves Stevens said that it was crucial for citizens to continue adhering to social distancing rules.

"The figures show that this is a crisis," Stevens said, urging citizens to keep their social contacts to a minimum.

"Only by staying as home as much as possible can we stop the spread of the virus," he said, adding: "We only have one chance, and that chance is now."

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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