The death toll in Belgium was the highest the country has seen since the end of the Second World War, according to research by the group Interface Demography from the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
The research refers to what is known as surplus or excess mortality, in other words the number of deaths over a given period in excess of the number that would normally be expected at that time.
The proximate cause: the coronavirus Covid-19, which had killed just under 9,000 people in Belgium when yesterday’s figures were announced.
“Mortality in Belgium is extremely high, reaching unprecedented levels especially in the period from April 1 to 12, with deaths on April 10 reaching 639 cases. This is more than double the mortality than would be expected on the day,” said the researchers.
“April of 2020 was the most deadly month since World War II, both in absolute numbers and per capita,” they said, cautiously attributing the extra deaths to the coronavirus.
The excess mortality figures are revealing, especially in light of the controversy surrounding Belgium’s method for counting coronavirus deaths, which appeared to make it the country with the most per capita deaths in the world.
That was mainly a result of Belgium’s way of counting not only deaths confirmed by a test for the virus, but also those deaths, mainly in care homes, that were presumed to be caused by the virus based on the symptoms, even in the absence of a test.
Consideration of excess mortality figures, however, tends to level the playing field. Those figures are usually associated with an unusual event, such as a flu epidemic in winter or a heatwave in summer. In this case, the excess can reasonably be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic.
But that does not mean Belgium was registering too many deaths as Covid-19 deaths. On the contrary, other countries were likely under-counting.
“For Belgium, the registration of mortality by Covid-19 appears to have been extremely accurate from the start,” said Professor Patrick Deboosere of the VUB. “Internationally, figures for various countries may need to be revised upwards in the future. In any case, Belgium will be seen to be one of the countries where the pandemic hit particularly hard.”
Within Belgium, the location hardest hit appears to have been Mons, followed by Brussels. The province of Limburg was unusually hard-hit, with high figures in Hasselt, Sint-Truiden and Alken, with excess mortality of 100% – twice as many deaths as might be expected.
In Liege, meantime, excess mortality was measured at 80%.
At the other end of the scale, Diksmuide in West Flanders and Huy in Walloon Brabant escaped excess mortality altogether in April. In most other places, excess mortality was about at the level of a serious flu outbreak.
“Never before has the month of April seen such high mortality in our country,” said Prof Deboosere. “Given the rapid spread of the virus from various sources of infection, the measures of March 13 [when the lockdown started with the closure of bars and restaurants] may have saved us at the last moment from a much worse crisis.”