Illustration picture shows a Covid-19 patient transferred by helicopter from the CHU hospital in Liege to Koln, Germany.
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LONDON — The coronavirus pandemic is hitting Belgium particularly hard, with intensive care units at full capacity in Brussels.
Belgium, where the main EU institutions are based, is experiencing some of the highest Covid-19 daily infections in Europe. When adjusted for population, the figures are twice as much as France and seven times more than Germany over the last two weeks, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control shows.
In late October, the country’s health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, described the situation as being like a “tsunami” of infections where the authorities are “no longer in control.”
It is a “big failure” compared to other European countries, Pieter Cleppe, a fellow at Property Rights Alliance and a resident of Belgium, told CNBC over the phone.
One of the reasons behind the crisis is the conflict between regional and federal leaders. Belgium has a unique configuration, divided into three communities (the French, the German and the Flemish) and three regions (the Brussels-capital region, and the Flemish and Walloon regions). They share various policy portfolios, for instance, while communities oversee education, regions have a say on economic affairs.
During the health crisis, politicians in the Flemish-speaking part and their counterparts in the French speaking regions have clashed over the right balance between containing the virus and avoiding further economic pain.
Alexander de Croo, who was appointed prime minister in late September, has tried to bring the nation together in the fight against Covid-19. He has asked “a team of 11 million Belgians” — the country’s population — to beat the pandemic “together.”
The Chaussée d’Ixelles, a commercial street of Brussels is seen nearly empty on November 3, 2020.
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De Croo announced a second nationwide lockdown earlier this week to last a least until the middle of December. Speaking on Wednesday, he said that “strict measures” will remain in place until there is a vaccine, The Brussels Times reported.
But Belgium’s hardship goes beyond that division.
Testing and high population density
Simon Dellicour, a bioengineer and research associate at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, said the recent spike in cases is due to a “relatively high population density,” increased testing capacity and a rapid relaxation of the rules at the end of the summer.
In comparison with neighboring nations such as France and Germany, Belgium has a much higher number of people per square kilometer, which raises challenges when imposing social distancing.
Fast relaxation of the rules
“At the end of the summer,” he said, “we reopened kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools at the same time and people were regularly going back to work.”
“Everything combined, we let the situation get worse and worse,” Dellicour added.
During the first wave of cases in spring, the country also imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, where police monitored non-essential travel. This second wave is causing a much higher number of reported daily cases than in March and April. But, the number of deaths per day is smaller than in spring, at the peak of the first wave, data from John Hopkins University shows.
Belgium, in contrast to other European countries, also counts deaths for any case for where a doctor suspects coronavirus was involved — which may inflate the tally and make it look worse than some neighbors. Britain, for example, would only count deaths that have occurred after 28 days of a positive test.
Over the last 14 days, Belgium’s cumulative number of Covid-19 deaths was the second highest in Europe, only topped by the Czech Republic.
The health emergency is so acute that some severely ill Covid-19 patients have reportedly been transferred to Germany. Brussels hit its capacity in terms of intensive care units two days ago.
Nationally, there were 7,405 Covid patients in hospital on Wednesday; 1,412 of whom in intensive care, RTBF reported on Thursday. The number of maximum available beds in intensive care is 2,000, the TV channel also reported.