Last year, more than 6,000 Belgian residents – a number that is likely a big underestimation – were unable to work for at least three months following a Covid-19 infection, show figures by the Independent health insurance funds.
Those unable to work for at least three months were mainly people with Long Covid (sometimes also called 'post-Covid'). Patients suffer from a wide range of symptoms from memory and concentration problems to shortness of breath and fatigue that significantly impact their daily functioning.
"We are talking about 6,000 people out of an active population of about five million. All of them were out of commission for at least three months after a Covid infection," Marijke Gielen of the Independent Health Insurance Funds told VRT. "The figures for this year go in the same direction."
Among those 6,000 patients, there are also people with post-intensive care syndrome, for example. "Some patients retain long-term symptoms from their stay in intensive care. That is not the same as Long Covid, although there are overlaps."
All patients were employed or looking for a job before being infected with Covid-19. Long Covid patients who were unable to work for fewer than three months after their infection were not included in the figures. Also not included in the figure: children, permanently appointed civil servants, pensioners and dependent adults.
Therefore, the official figures are likely an underestimate, said psychiatrist Livia De Picker (UPC Duffel/UA). "I used international research on the number of patients who develop Long Covid after infection and have to stop working completely as a result. In Europe, those figures vary little from country to country."
Combining the figures with those from the Sciensano national health institute on the number of infections among those aged between 20 and 60 from September 2021 to August 2022, De Picker stated that at least 13,500 people completely stopped working for over three months this year. "I think you can at least double the figure from the Independent Health Insurance Funds. This is also in line with figures from abroad."
There are several explanations for the large difference in estimates, Pierre Smith of Sciensano told VRT, starting with the lack of a generally accepted definition of Long Covid. "If you use strict criteria, you end up with a lower number. If you use a broad definition, then there are more patients."
Additionally, diagnosing Long Covid is not always obvious: a GP must investigate whether the symptoms are in fact the result of a recent Covid infection, but that is not easy. "Being tired, muscle pain and so on can also come from a lot of other diseases," said Smith. "You then have to rule out all other possibilities, but that is often a complicated matter."
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Still, the calculations by the Independent Health Insurance Funds and De Picker are considered a step forward: for the first time, there is a rough estimate of absenteeism due to Long Covid.
"More attention to this problem is urgently needed," said De Picker. "For two years, we received daily detailed figures on the number of infections, the number of hospital admissions and so on. But we still know extremely little about this group of patients. That absolutely has to change."
In the meantime, Federal Public Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke calls on anyone with symptoms of Long Covid to go see their GP. "People who have symptoms of Covid for three months or more can receive customised care through their GP, such as physiotherapy, dietary advice or psychological support for example. The care required will also be reimbursed by the health insurance fund in the process."
From 1 December, someone suffering from Long Covid will also be able to see a neuropsychologist and an occupational therapist, both for examination and treatment. "That will concern people complaining of memory disorders or other cognitive problems. They can then get specialised help from the hospital."