One of the concepts this coronavirus epidemic has taught us, in addition to social distancing, is that of excess mortality.
The term relates to the number of actual deaths in any given period, compared to the number that would be expected on such a day. The difference between the two figures is the excess, which is used to calculate the severity of a situation like a flu epidemic or a heat wave.
Much has been made in recent weeks of the high number of deaths per capita recorded in Belgium during the coronavirus epidemic. According to some calculations, Belgium is even an unenviable top of the table, above Italy and Spain and even above the UK and US.
The Belgian experts have explained that this is because Belgium counts not only confirmed cases, but also presumed cases, such as patients in nursing homes who die after suffering corona-type symptoms.
“This way of reporting reflects the impact of the epidemic very well,” said Professor Steven Van Gucht of the government crisis centre today. “If we only were to take into account the confirmed cases, we would underestimate the number of cases significantly. We see that this excess mortality is much higher now than in the past. However, it is definitely not higher than in our neighbouring countries at the moment.”
However, a closer look at the figures reveals there are wide variations in the excess mortality figures across the regions of the country, and even between towns and cities.
At this time of the year, about 300 people would be expected to die on any given day in Belgium. At the moment, including coronavirus deaths, the number is about 87% higher, around 560, though that fluctuates from day to day – today for example there were 230 additional deaths, or an excess mortality of under 80%.
The peak of 637 total deaths was reached on April 10, when coronavirus deaths were at 325.
The latest week for which excess mortality has been calculated was week 15, April 6-12. Then, the figure for Flanders was 72.2%, while Wallonia had a count of 89.3% and Brussels no less than 171.4%.
The figures can mean one of two things: either Flanders had a lower excess because expected deaths are higher, or there were simply fewer deaths additional to expectations.
In the last week of March, the deaths in Hasselt numbered 63, followed by 67 in the first week of April. The average for the time of year is 24.9 – showing an excess mortality for the two weeks of 153% and 169% respectively.
Also in the last week of March, when cities like Aalst, Bruges, Leuven, Antwerp, Turnhout, Sint-Niklaas and Ostend – the so-called centre cities – were under the Flemish average of 77% excess, Kortrijk was on 113% and Roeselare on 99%.