Federal health minister Maggie De Block (Open VLD) has published a response to the claim that Belgium leads the world in the number of deaths from Covid-19 per head of population.
Unusually, De Block has chosen to publish her argument in English, on the website of the American-owned publication Politico. In an article titled In defense of Belgium’s coronavirus response, she addresses the question of counting per capita deaths, which places Belgium in the unhappy lead in the world, with 843.9 deaths per million inhabitants.
While the figure may be accurate, De Block essentially argues, it does little to reflect accurately the country’s handling of the crisis.
“Of course, Belgium was not perfect in its response to the crisis,” she admits. “Although we secured sufficient respirators and personal protection equipment for hospital staff, we did not manage to provide enough protective gear for our caregivers in the nursing homes on time. As in many other countries, this resulted in a high proportion of elderly people among our COVID-19 victims. These are human tragedies we should seriously investigate and learn from.”
She repeats the familiar argument that Belgium’s numbers have been inflated by the policy of counting care-home deaths as Covid-19 deaths on the basis of symptoms rather than testing.
That necessarily produces higher figures for fatalities, thanks to what she calls “diligent counting by independent epidemiologists who did not want to miss a single potential victim of the coronavirus, whether the patient had been tested or not”.
She then turns her attention to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) which reckoned the Belgian government’s response to the crisis scored worse than all other countries in the OECD.
The EIU report, she writes, “is a textbook example of what happens when you attempt to create a ranking using a small number of variables chosen for their availability, rather than for their relevance, with arbitrary cutoff points and time periods, and a complete lack of data curation”.
And she points to what she describes as an irony in the EIU conclusions: “Belgium scores outstandingly on all the EIU’s metrics that a government can actually influence (the number of tests and the provision of non COVID-19 health care). The one exception is excess mortality. And yet, with no explanation, this factor is seemingly arbitrarily weighted so that it makes up nearly half the final score.”
The inconsistency is all the more striking, she says, given that many other factors were simply ignored: a country’s population density, the number of highly populated clusters within a country, or the multiple pathways through which the virus could enter a small but very international country with many open borders.
“I am disappointed by the simplistic way statistics on COVID-19 deaths are all too often used in the public debate,” she concludes. “The comparison between countries seems to be reduced to a sport competition, instead of treating the figures for what they are: a human tragedy that requires scientific analysis and critical but careful investigation.”