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Coronavirus in Belgium: Your general questions answered
What are the trends?
The biggest rise in coronavirus infections at present is among young people aged 10 to 19, according to virologist Marc Van Ranst. "These are mainly people returning from holiday," he said. For now, we are not yet seeing a spike following the return to school, "but I'm sure it will come", Van Ranst added.
Belgium has gone from dark to light orange on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control coronavirus heatmap, meaning the country is recording between 20 and 60 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 population over two weeks. The average currently stands at 49. Brussels is still in red, which means that the region has recorded more than 120 cases per 100,000.
There remains a "long road" ahead of us in the fight against coronavirus and we must continue to work together, virologist Emmanuel André said on Twitter this week. He said "young, socially active adults" were the main age group affected by the latest spread of the virus. He warned: "Part of our community has become more critical with regard to collective measures deemed too restrictive. What we have before us is a huge need for solidarity, resilience and tolerance."
If Brussels' coronavirus stats do not improve, further restrictions will be decided, the region's health minister Elke Van den Brandt told Radio 1. The Celeval committee of experts advising the federal government on coronavirus has argued that the region-wide requirement to wear a mask is not enough and should be backed up by additional measures.
While many of the new coronavirus cases reported in recent weeks are among young people, those who are hospitalised with the virus remain, on average, older people. During the first wave, the average age was 71. Now it is 65. Fewer of the people currently hospitalised have been transferred from nursing homes, and fewer of them have other underlying health problems, Sciensano said.
When did the first wave of coronavirus in Belgium end? Sciensano says it was on 22 June, when hospital bed occupancy was at its lowest. During the first wave, from March to June, 18,607 people in Belgium were hospitalised. Since the numbers have picked up again, a further 810 people have ended up in hospital.
Public health institute Sciensano has begun sending real-time coronavirus stats directly to municipalities. Information about local infections will be sent automatically to mayors in towns that have between two and nine daily confirmed cases. Above 10 cases per day, a more detailed analysis of coronavirus "clusters", allowing municipalities to take targeted action. The mayor of Mons, Nicolas Martin, said: "The usefulness of such a tool is that we can act at an ultra-local level, such as within a company or nursing home."
VUB has developed an online tool, tracking the evolution of coronavirus on a commune-by-commune basis. Using data from Sciensano, the tool identifies which municipalities still have a growing number of cases, while the national trend is one of decline. See www.coronafacts.be
Population growth in Belgium will slow down when this year's official stats are published. The Federal Planning Bureau forecasts a 17,000 population rise this year, instead of the usual annual population increase of around 50,000. It is predicting a 50% drop in migration - people moving in and out of Belgium - for 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic.
Public health institute Sciensano has explained why it provides coronavirus stats in absolute and relative terms, after University of Liège virologist Bernard Rentier said the percentage increases caused anxiety and sensationalist headlines. He said: "If one day, we have two deaths and the next day four, that makes an increase of 100%. That's the figure you'll find in headlines, but if you have €1 in your wallet and €2 the next day, it is also an increase of 100% but you are still not rich. Presenting the figures this way gives the impression to the population that we are in a second wave and it is false." (Sciensano's stats are, in fact, a seven-day moving average, not a daily increase, to smooth out any sudden movements in the numbers.) The institute's director, Christian Léonard, responds: "If we do not give the relative value, that is to say the percentage increase, people might have the impression that 'only' two deaths yesterday is nothing. Of course the percentage changes are strong because the figures are low. Likewise, if we had 900 deaths and that increased by nine, we'd be accused of down-playing the situation by calling it a 1% increase. That's why we also give the absolute number of the increase: nine deaths. Who can claim that the loss of nine lives is not important?"
Belgium's text-message safety alert system, Be-Alert, has seen an increase in users since the coronavirus crisis began. From 729,000 users pre-crisis, the service now has 890,000 subscribers. More than 50,000 people registered in the week that the stay-at-home order was announced in March. About eight in 10 Belgian municipalities are using the service to get messages out fast to residents.
Between 5 and 20 August, more people in Belgium died due to the heat than coronavirus - 5,699 in total. Most of the victims were over 85 years old. This represents a 35% excess mortality due to heat, the most serious Belgium has ever had to face.
What symptoms should I be looking out for?
A sudden onset of fever (at least 38°C), a persistent cough and difficulty breathing. The most at-risk groups are the elderly and people with an existing medical condition. If you think you might be affected, call a doctor. They will either arrange a home visit or give you an appointment at a time when no one else is in the waiting room. Do not turn up at the doctor's surgery or hospital unannounced. The Brussels region has created a helpline for anyone who is not registered with a general practitioner. By phoning 1710, you will be put in contact with a GP who can discuss your symptoms with you.
According to a study in the Netherlands, relayed by Belgium's interfederal crisis centre, the earliest symptoms of coronavirus are not coughing, a sore throat or high temperature. Those symptoms tend to appear later. The earliest signs are intense fatigue, severe muscle pain, headaches and a disturbed sense of taste and smell.
What do we know about the virus?
At least 7% of the Belgian population - about 782,000 people - have been infected with coronavirus since the outbreak began, according to a University of Antwerp study based on analysis of thousands of blood samples. Officially, Belgium has recorded 68,000 confirmed cases. "Our analysis is perhaps an underestimation," said epidemiology professor Pierre Van Damme. "We are clearly missing many cases of infection."
Since the outbreak began, almost 250 separate pieces of university research have been launched into different elements of the pandemic. Now a new initiative has brought all those pieces of research together in one place. Some of them have already been published, others are a work in progress. See www.covid19-wb.be
Researchers at the University of Liège say there is not just one version of coronavirus ciculating in Belgium, but many different strands. "They have minimal but clear genetic differences, which shows their different origins", says medical genetics expert Vincent Bours. "The epidemiologists studied the postcodes of residence of the infected patients and the dates of diagnosis. From there, they were able to measure the speed of circulation of these different viruses in the country." The researchers recommend testing for at least two different strands of the virus to ensure more reliable results.
Researchers at ULB and KU Leuven have analysed several hundred samples of the virus to learn more about the history of how it has spread. There was no "first infected patient" with coronavirus in Belgium, but several at the same time. These first "imports" were in early February, before the half-term holidays, although it is true that the carnival school holidays played an important role in the virus's spread, especially among people who went on ski holidays in Austria and Italy.
At least 5,000 of the 17,000 patients admitted to hospital with coronavirus were treated with chloroquine or a similar derivative, Le Soir and De Standaard reported on Monday. At the beginning of the epidemic, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine were routinely used to treat high-risk patients. It was not until 27 May that public health institute Sciensano advised against its use, following several adverse side-effects and pending the results of clinical trials into its effectiveness. According to a study by infectiologist Emmanuel Bottieau, chloroquine did not cause any extra deaths.
Will there be a second wave?
"We are not experiencing a second wave," according to interfederal spokeswoman Frédérique Jacobs. "Maybe we are at the beginning of a second wave, but for now the numbers are not too high. If we do nothing, we will obviously head towards a second wave." She explains: "The number of detected positive cases is on the rise, but when we were at the peak of the epidemic in March and April, we had 2,000 to 2,500 positive cases per day. Today we're around the 500 mark, but in March and April we only tested people with serious symptoms and we didn't detect the others. Now we are detecting cases among people with very weak symptoms. It's not the same testing method. We see that there are very few hospitalisations, since it mainly affects young people.
Coronavirus will remain with us for several months to come. For the virus to be considered eradicated, there must be 28 consecutive days with no Covid-19 hospital admissions.
Epidemiologist Marius Gilbert, one of the 10 experts sitting on Belgium's "exit strategy" committee said: "We will have to remain vigilant for a long time - several months, certainly until the autumn. There will be a risky phase in the autumn, with the return of the cold weather, with more people indoors, with a return to school. This will be the period when all of our preventative measures, including contact tracing, must be totally operational."
One of Belgium's leading coronavirus experts has warned that the country's complicated governmental structure means Belgium is not prepared for a possible second wave of the virus. Virologist Erika Vlieghe, who chairs the expert panel on Belgium's coronavirus measures, told the Flemish parliament's coronavirus committee: "There must be a captain on the deck of the ship. We have met many people at all political levels, but no one knows who is allowed to press which button."
Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem believes three scenarios are possible for a second wave of the epidemic in Belgium. "Either we do not respect the gradual easing of the measures and the second wave will occur quickly in the coming weeks, which must be avoided at all costs," he said on Wednesday. "Or it is possible that it will occur at the end of August if precautions during the holidays are not sufficiently well observed." The third scenario is that coronavirus will become a winter illness: "Respiratory infection is more common in cold weather than in the summer, so it could become more frequent and more aggressive during the winter period." He added that, instead of a second wave of the virus, he would prefer to see several "small mini-waves".
Virologist Marc Van Ranst says the virus will "stay" and become a seasonal illness, like flu. Asked about a vaccine, he said: "Whether it takes 10, 12 or 18 months, it will come. I am confident."
Interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht said: "We think that over time, in a few years, coronavirus will behave more and more like a cold virus. It is possible that it will return on a regular basis. Since there will be partial immunity by then, the consequences will be less serious."
Collective immunity from Covid-19 remains low in Belgium. Among analysis of blood samples supplied by the Red Cross between 8 and 10 June, only 4.3% of people had the presence of antibodies. The samples came from blood donors aged 18 to 75, who were in good health at the time of giving blood.
Belgium is ready to face a possible second wave of Covid-19, according to federal minister Philippe De Backer. He said Belgium had built up a strategic stock of more than 200 million surgical masks, 20 million gowns, half a million visors and about 40 million gloves for medical personnel. According to De Backer, Belgium is within the global top 10 countries for coronavirus testing per million inhabitants.
But a report for the national security council from the expert committee advising on Belgium's coronavirus exit strategy has warned that Belgium is not prepared for a second wave of the virus. The committee was critical of Belgium's efforts in terms of testing, contact-tracing and preparing the healthcare system for a possible resurgence. It says contact-tracing "suffered from an extremely low success rate from the start" and that "improvements are slow". The committee said resources and budgets needed to be allocated now to preparing for a second wave.
Seven out of 10 people in Belgium are prepared to comply with a second stay-at-home order, if necessary, according to an RTL/Ipsos/Le Soir survey. 19% of respondents opposed the idea.
What can I do to reduce my chances of getting it?
Wash your hands with warm, soapy water more frequently than usual. Cover your nose and mouth when sneezing with a paper tissue that you then throw away and try to avoid touching your face with your hands. If you do not have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands. Wear a facemask in busy places.
Social distancing is a measure that will need to be respected for some time to come, according to Dr Philippe Devos, head of CHU Liège's intensive care unit. "Social distancing is something that will have to last until the vaccine is ready," he said. "Pharmaceutical companies reckon that's between 12 and 18 months." While the figures are heading in the right direction, Belgium's federal crisis centre says it would be "totally irresponsible to adapt our behaviour" based on individual interpretation of the figures.
Antwerp university's ongoing coronavirus research has found a slight increase in people who say they shake hands and kiss people they meet. It had been around the 5% mark for a long time and has now risen to 10% among respondents who share their home with others, and 17% among respondents who live alone.
A basic carbon dioxide detector could help limit the spread of coronavirus by encouraging people to keep their homes and businesses well ventilated, according to the mayor of Kraainem, Bertrand Waucquez, who previously work in the construction industry. The detectors typically come with a colour-coded display that indicate when the quality of the air is deteriorating - and it is time to open a window to let their air circulate. Waucquez says that, with autumn arriving, people will be spending more time indoors - in schools, cafes and offices. The municipality has already installed 50 detectors in public buildings. Sandrine Bladt, head of the indoor pollution lab at Bruxelles Environnement, said: "The measurement of CO2 is a good indicator for the rate of air renewal, and in times of health crisis, good ventilation must be emphasised."
Can Belgium's coronavirus stats be fairly compared with other countries?
Stats can be interpreted in different ways - and some commentators have compared Belgium's reported coronavirus deaths with other countries on a per-capita basis. And the per-capita figure does not show Belgium in a positive light. But the comparison should be taken with a pinch of salt. Belgium's method of counting coronavirus deaths is relatively thorough - for example: it includes deaths outside hospital.
"The way we count the number of deaths in Belgium aims to give us the best view of the situation," said former interfederal spokesman Emmanuel André. "In Belgium, we count both deaths confirmed by a laboratory test and suspected coronavirus deaths. We count deaths in the hospital network, but also in the community and particularly in care homes. This approach can set us apart from other countries. We will maintain this system which we think is very complete. We will continue to separate out the different categories."
How are the tests done?
The federal government will release €50 million to increase coronavirus testing capacities. Public health institute Sciensano estimates that, with the flu season approaching, it will be necessary to carry out up to 70,000 coronavirus tests per day. Minister Philippe De Backer said more walk-in testing facilities, such as the one opened last week in Antwerp, were the way forward. "We cannot expect GPs to prescribe so many tests per day," he said. "The testing village in Antwerp is a good example of how we can organise the flow of people. This will be essential in cities."
Brussels' coronavirus testing facilities are struggling to keep up with a surge in demand for tests, as travellers prepare to head on holiday. Some countries require proof of a negative coronavirus test to be allowed in. The test costs €46.81. The total testing capacity in the Brussels region currently stands at 2,000 per day. Brussels health minister Alain Maron hopes to double the region's testing capacity from 2,000 to 4,000 per day - possibly 5,000 - by September. He has asked hospitals that had closed their testing centres, due to an earlier lack of demand, to reopen them.
On the issue of testing capacity, André added: "Today, all the testing centres are waking up. We had gone into a dormant phase in a number of labs, which was justified. The testing delays that we are hearing about are worrying. We must improve."
The federal government plans to put extra pressure on laboratories that are too slow to produce coronavirus test results, or that supply incomplete data to the authorities. Labs that are too slow risk financial penalties. The government expects a confirmed positive test result to be communicated to public health institute Sciensano within an hour, as speed is of the essence in the contact-tracing effort.
The mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close, wants to see large-scale coronavirus testing centres set up at Zaventem airport and in major Belgian rail stations, allowing passengers to walk in without an appointment and be done within 15 minutes. In an interview with La Libre Belgique, he said it was "still too complicated to get tested". He added: "You have to fill out a form, the general practitioner has to make a prescription, which is only possible if the doctor is not on leave, otherwise you have to call 1710 or go to the emergency room. In short, it's too long and complicated."
A new walk-in coronavirus testing service, without the need for an appointment, has opened at Molière Longchamp hospital in Forest. It is part of the Brussels region's plan to double testing capacity in the capital by September. It's open without a prescription from 12.00 to 16.00, at Avenue Molière 32. Results are available within 48 hours.
The City of Antwerp has opened a "Covid test village", capable of taking up to 4,000 samples per day. The service is designed for Antwerp residents who do not have any coronavirus symptoms, but who wish to be tested nonetheless. They must register in advance. The test will be free and the samples will be analysed at a new lab within the University of Antwerp, so as to not add extra workload to existing labs. Anyone with possible symptoms should not use the new facility, but contact their GP instead.
UZ Brussel university hospital has moved its coronavirus testing facility to its car park. The drive-in service aims to save time and make the hospital safer for everyone. Adults with a scheduled appointment at the hospital should turn up at the drive-in two days earlier, at an agreed time. Drivers can stay in their car. Anyone coming by public transport can walk through the testing facility. The results are known the next day.
The University of Liège will be able to carry out more than 50,000 screening tests per day within a few weeks, reports L'Echo. The university has developed a new technique, based on a self-administered saliva test, which could be rolled out to the wider population, allowing everyone to take a test regularly, at least once a month. Liège university hospital has also reopened its drive-in coronavirus testing facility. It is capable of carrying out 250 tests a day, and on average 2% of the tests are coming back positive.
A court in Liège has ordered the Belgian state to honour its €23 million contract to buy 3.5 million coronavirus antibody tests from supplier Zentch. The firm has been in a legal dispute with Belgium, after it won the fast-track contract, without a full public call for tenders. In his ruling on Tuesday, the judge in Liège said Zentech had been placed in a position where it had been unable to fulfil its side of the deal, because the Belgian state had failed to provide any details of where the 3.5 million tests should be sent. Belgium has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the antibody tests. It submitted a report from public health insitute Sciensano, challenging the reliability of the tests, at the last minute, but the judge said it could not be taken into account because it was incomplete and written in English without a translation. Zentech said it had provided guarantees when signing the contract that it would be liable for any shortcomings.
It is possible to ask your doctor to prescribe an antibody test, costing €9.60, to find out whether you have come into contact with the virus. According to an early batch of results - 1,000 tests in two days - a large number people who thought they had been in contact with coronavirus, and were potentially immunised, are not. Only 5-10% of the serological tests came back positive.
A Belgian man is suing the Belgian state and the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products for refusing to allow coronavirus antibody self-testing kits in pharmacies. Unlike in France, the test in Belgium has to be prescribed by a GP. It costs €9.80. The man taking legal action against Belgium is reportedly in his 60s and considered at-risk. "Being able to access the test would avoid stress," his lawyer said. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said: "Roughly 40% of people lose the coronavirus antibodies after two months, so a negative test now does not necessarily mean that you did not come into contact with coronavirus in March, for example. And this test does not tell you if you are protected for the future. It shouldn't give people a false assurance."
Three Walloon biotech firms have developed a new coronavirus antibody test that can provide results in 15 minutes. Coris BioConcept, Unisensor and Bio-X Diagnostics say it is a world-first in the detection of immune responses against Covid-19. The consortium wishes to make this test accessible to as many people as possible through pharmacies, GPs and retirement homes. However, self-testing kits are currently banned by Belgium - so a law change would be necessary.
What about a vaccine?
Belgium's federal medicines agency believes a first batch of coronavirus vaccines could be ready for March 2021. FAMHP director Xavier De Cuyper is involved in European Union negotiations with manufacturers of potential vaccines. "On the basis of all the information I have, I dare to say that in March 2021 we could have a vaccine against Covid-19 in Belgium. It is a realistic deadline," he said. "A first European delivery will probably involve 50 million doses. Belgium will receive around 1.2 million."
More than 400 people have volunteered to test a potential coronavirus vaccine, developed by the Belgian lab Janssen Pharmaceutica and its parent company Johnson & Johnson. The first tests should be carried out in mid-July, two months earlier than planned. More volunteers are needed - 500 are needed for the first phase. They will be compensated up to €1,500.
A working committee has been set up to advise the Belgian government on which coronavirus vaccine(s) it should purchase. While no pharmaceutical group has reached the final phase of clinical trials yet and a vaccine is not expected before the end of the year, the group is making preparations already and met for the first time on Tuesday with the aim of agreeing on the selection criteria. A first potential vaccine is already being examined - that produced by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.
How is Belgium handling this?
The federal government plans to hire a "corona commissioner" to coordinate Belgium's ongoing management of the coronavirus crisis. The new post is part of a wider plan to deal with a potential second wave, including an increase in daily testing to 50,000, more mobile testing facilities in tents outside public buildings, and a requirement to provide test results within 24 hours. The Belgian authorities also want to vaccinate a wider section of the population against the flu this winter, to ease the pressure on the healthcare system, which will soon find itself dealing with seasonal flu and Covid-19 at the same time. A budget of just over €35 million euros this year and €45.5 million euros in 2021 is planned to support this strategy.
Belgium's management of the coronavirus crisis "shows a lot of flaws and inadequacies", according to a group of scientists and academics in an open letter published in Le Soir. They say the stay-at-home period has led to a 30% increase in deaths due to non-coronavirus causes, as people put off ongoing medical care. The letter's authors are also critical of the economic impact of Belgium's coronavirus restrictions, adding: "€50 billion has evaporated. Never has so much money been spent on saving so few lives."
Virologist and interfederal spokesman Steven Van Gucht has responded to criticism that Belgium was too slow to act against the coronavirus outbreak. Scientists Philippe Devos and Marc Wathelet, who were the first to alert the government to the threat, told VRT's Terzake programme that Belgium intervened too late. Van Gucht said their claim was "a bit exaggerated", adding: "Since the start of the crisis, we have taken the situation very seriously. From January we were busy day and night. All possible scenarios have been taken into account. The reality is that no one could calculate precisely what the impact of the corona outbeak would be." Did Belgium shut down too late? Van Gucht said: "When we announced the shutdown, we had 560 infections and three deaths. We confined much faster than the Netherlands or the United Kingdom. The first local case occurred on 1 March. Twelve days later, we shut down."
Two federations representing Belgian nurses are taking legal action against the Belgian state and federal health minister Maggie De Block, claiming they acted negligently during the coronavirus crisis. The National Federation of Belgian Nurses (FNIB) and the Federation of Independent Belgian Nurses claim medical staff, especially nurses, were put in danger and that Belgium showed a lack of preparedness and foresight. They point to a shortage of protective gear, a lack of systematic testing of healthcare workers and little psychological support. Some 56 nurses have registered as civil claimants in the class action. The federations said they tried to alert the minister and the authorities to "difficult and dangerous situations", adding: "All of these attempts were unsuccessful."
A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit claims Belgium had the worst response to the coronavirus crisis out of 21 OECD countries. Belgium ranked bottom with a score of 2.11 out of four. It scored well for its testing capacity, but scored poorly for its death rate per capita. Federal health minister Maggie De Block said the stats "did not tell the whole story", to which virologist Emmanuel André replied: "The numbers still say something. We cannot deny everything if we are to learn from our mistakes."
The minister-president of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation says there are too many experts giving their thoughts in the Belgian media about the coronavirus crisis. Pierre-Yves Jeholet, who sits on the national security council, said: "The experts contradict each other and some like to play on fear. It is perhaps necessary that these experts talk less." Prime minister Sophie Wilmès said it was wrong for politicians to criticise the scientific experts, adding: "The experts advise, the politicians decide." She acknowledged that the experts often had conflicting opinions, but said this was normal: "Public debate is very healthy, but when you try to get a message across, it's more difficult."
Belgium's handling of the coronavirus crisis has won praise from British newspaper the Financial Times and could be "a useful example to other countries". Its Brussels correspondent Jim Brunsden writes that Belgium's daily briefing "is fronted not by politicians, but by scientific experts and spokespeople of the Belgium government’s crisis centre", the paper says. "The briefings are an opportunity to scotch rumours and conspiracy theories, counter misunderstandings and admonish attempts to evade the conditions. The briefings have also focused on the human impact, emphasising the importance of mental health, and countering the spread of false information." The FT concludes: "Contrary to what many might have predicted, Belgium’s government has shown that a deeply fragmented country can still produce a clear, decisive response to a national crisis. Here’s hoping it continues."
Belgium ordered a million coronavirus antibody tests that have since been found to be unreliable, it has emerged. DiaSorin had a detection rate of just 84.6%, according to a major comparative study of 16 serological tests carried out by scientists from several university hospitals in Denmark. In early April, Belgium's federal agency for medicines and health products ordered a million of the test kits for labs, to test the immunity of medical personnel. Minister Philippe De Backer said that due to limited supplies and a shortage of time, a large number of tests from different manufacturers was ordered quickly. The aim had been to stockpile fast and "not to select the best one".
Four Belgian coronavirus experts are receiving police protection after receiving threats from the public. Virologists Marc Van Ranst and Erika Vlieghe have confirmed that they and two others have been targeted. Vlieghe said: "Threats were made against us. The investigating judge has deemed the threats serious enough to call for police protection."
Staying safe online
A growing number of coronavirus-related scams are doing the rounds online, Belgium's federal computer crime unit has warned. They include fraudulent listings for disinfectant gel and masks and fake online shops claiming to sell medical supplies. There are also reports of scammers visiting elderly people door-to-door, claiming to be from the town hall and offering to disinfect their home. For more info about common online scams, see www.safeonweb.be
Consumer protection body Test Achats has set up an online platform to specifically address coronavirus-related scams and fraud. The group is also monitoring price increases for medical supplies. See www.test-achats.be/stopabuscorona
Some 450 cases of suspected "fake news" on social media have been investigated by federal police since the coronavirus crisis began. Half of these, 237 in total, led to social media posts being voluntarily deleted. A federal police taskforce is responsible for scouring the internet for misinformation. They are looking for stories that have been "intentionally fabricated to exploit vulnerabilities with the intention of undermining public institutions".
Scam text messages are being sent out, claiming to be from Belgium's official contact tracing centres. The messages say you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive - and that you should click the link to find out more. Official contact from the contact tracers will come from the phone number 02 214 19 19, or by text message from the number 8811.
What is the economic impact?
Belgium's gross domestic product in the first quarter of 2020 was 2.8% down on the same period last year, the Belgian national bank has confirmed. The coronavirus crisis has put an end to five and a half years of falling unemployment in the Brussels region. At the end of April, Brussels had 87,271 jobseekers - an unemployment rate of 15.5%. The number of job vancies listed at Actiris has almost halved in April to 1,677.
Brussels chamber of commerce Beci fears that 52,000 jobs could be lost permanently in the capital because of business closures and restructuring following the coronavirus crisis. In Brussels, 160,000 people are currently on temporary unemployment. Beci believes many of them risk finding themselves permanently unemployed in the weeks and months to come. Another 10,000 temp jobs in the capital are forecast to disappear.
According to Flemish business body Voka, the coronavirus crisis could cost the Belgian economy €16 billion. Brussels chamber of commerce Beci says more than half of the region's businesses have lost at least 75% of their turnover. Belfius bank forecasts that the Belgian economy will shrink by 5% this year - but it says the recovery should be "rapid" and "solid". The National Bank of Belgium is forecasting an "V-shaped" economic fallout from coronavirus - an 8% drop in GDP this year, followed by an 8.6% rebound in 2021.
A series of measures to support freelances and small businesses has been announced. The deadline for paying second-quarter and third-quarter social charges has been extended to 15 December. The deadline for paying VAT has been extended by two months.
Belgium's four biggest banks - ING, BNP Paribas Fortis, KBC and Belfius - have all agreed to offer businesses a break with their loan repayments - and to make it easier for firms to borrow if they need to. The Brussels government has set aside €110 million to help business in difficulty. The social security body for self-employed people, Inasti, has a helpline for independent workers facing difficulties: 0800 12 018 (weekdays 8.00-20.00). The Brussels Hotels Association says the majority of hotels have closed, and those that remain open are currently operating at about 5% capacity. The Audi car plant in Forest hopes to resume activity after the Easter holidays, after making adaptations to the production line to allow for social distancing. Volvo in Ghent is also preparing to restart its production line.