Belgium Imposes Lockdown to Avert Health-Care System Collapse

Nowhere else is Europe’s virus misery more visible than in its unofficial capital of Brussels, where Belgian leaders announced a lockdown to avert an imminent buckling of one of the continent’s most advanced health-care systems.

Belgium is once again finding itself at the epicenter of the unfolding pandemic disaster, and on Friday announced the closing of all non-essential stores, as well as a partial ban of visits to family and friends, in a last-ditch attempt to stem the flow of hospital admissions. Schools will also stay closed for two weeks. A night curfew is already in place and bars and restaurants were closed earlier this month.

The measures will enter into force as of Sunday and will be reviewed in a month. Each household will be allowed a single visit of each week, while those living alone will be allowed to see one more person.

Belgium Imposes Lockdown to Avert Health-Care System Collapse

“We’ll take any of the measures that can be taken, but it may be too late,” said Julien Compere, the chief executive officer of the CHU hospital in Liege, the hardest hit region in Belgium. “It’s a matter of days until we’re really at the edge of what we can do to take care of patients.”

The nation of 11 million which hosts the European Union’s main institutions and NATO’s headquarters, has the third highest death rate from the coronavirus, behind San Marino and Peru, according to John Hopkins University data. That’s despite being one of the richest countries globally and having one of Europe’s strongest healthcare systems.

Belgium Imposes Lockdown to Avert Health-Care System Collapse

Why the rate is so high in Belgium is still the subject of debate, but among the reasons touted are the density of the population and the challenge of administering nine different health regions. During the last peak in the spring, Belgium also said its high death rate was a result of methodological differences in tracking numbers of fatalities compared to other countries.

The number of daily hospital admissions in Belgium is still doubling every eight days. The country risks running out of available intensive-care beds by the end of next week after it took only eight days for the number of Covid-19 patients being treated in intensive care units to soar from 525 on Oct. 21 to 1,057 yesterday.

At the same time, the epidemic shows no signs of abating. While the nationwide infection rate for the past two weeks has climbed to 1,609 per 100,000 residents, Liege has crossed the threshold of 3,000 per 100,000 residents. In the Brussels capital district, more than 2% of the population got infected in the past 14 days.

Coronavirus patients now occupy 45 of the 49 intensive care beds at the CHU hospital and this week it has transferred an average of two patients per day to Flanders, in the North of the country, according to Compere. The hospital’s operating room has been converted into a temporary intensive care unit, providing an extra 10 beds. The CEO is looking to Germany as a potential destination for any further influx.

Staff Shortages

Belgium is facing shortages in doctors and nurses to treat patients, with so many in quarantine. In Liege, doctors and nurses who have contracted the virus but are asymptomatic have been asked to carry on working, while other options to recruit out-of-work bar and restaurant staff, the army and trained refugees have also been considered.

Demand for tests is also overwhelming laboratory capacity, making it virtually impossible to gauge the follow-through of any government measure. Hospital admissions tend to be a lagging indicator given the incubation time of the virus. The increase in daily infections over the last seven days may be almost double the official figures, according to epidemiologist Steven Van Gucht.

“Our country stopped testing asymptomatic people on Oct. 21 because the maximal laboratory capacity was reached,” he said. “We have to be very careful.”

Nations across Europe are now tightening restrictions once again, despite strong reluctance to shutter economies. Germany will impose a one-month partial shutdown starting Monday and France entered a nationwide lockdown on Friday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that health authorities there too were at the limits of their capacity, despite the country’s relative success at combating the virus.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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