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Coronavirus in Belgium: Your general questions answered
What are the trends?
You'll find the latest daily coronavirus figures for Belgium in our main article here. The downward trend continues, with hospital occupancy now below the 1,000 mark and fewer than 200 people in intensive care. Interfederal spokesman Yves Van Laethem said: "We've had 17 days of data since the start of "phase 1B" in the exit strategy, and 10 days of stats since the start of "phase 2". The downward trend remains unchanged, so we have no reason to believe that we are easing the measures too quickly. We do not have the impression that people are taking risks - they are remaining relatively cautious."
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.
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.
Will there be a second wave?
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.
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."
Van Laethem says there has been no "visible impact" of the eased coronavirus restrictions on the latest stats. "There has been no rebound," he said. "We are happy with the development. But while we are on the right track, we have not yet arrived at our destination. We still have a few days ahead of us before we can truly measure the impact of the 11 and 18 May [lifting of restrictions]. We still have other phases ahead of us before we can contemplate a return to normal life." 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."
Research by two Antwerp university epidemiologists suggests collective immunity is far from being acquired in Belgium. Three weeks ago, according to 3,686 blood tests carried out through Belgium, only 3% of the population had coronavirus antibodies, indicating that their immune system has encountered the virus.
What can I do to reduce my chances of getting it?
Stay at home. 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.
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.
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," says 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."
It is possible that the number of deaths will be revised downwards in the coming days. This is because, among the deaths in retirement homes, it is not immediately possible to determine whether coronavirus was the cause. "In a number of cases, the suspicion may have been overestimated," said André.
Belgium is considering changing the way it calculates coronavirus deaths. Federal health minister Maggie De Block said on Thursday: "No other country in Europe counts in the same way as us. We used the most detailed method - we count deaths not only in hospitals but also in nursing homes, even if there is no test, just a suspicion." Federal health institute Sciensano has been asked to develop a new calculation system "which will allow us to compare ourselves with other countries", De Block added.
Researchers have started comparing the data on care-home deaths against the number of deaths normally registered in retirement homes in a normal period. The difference between the two figures will give a clearer picture of how many of the deaths can be directly attributed to coronavirus. André explains: "An analysis is currently underway to find out how many more deaths have occurred and to assess the excess mortality from coronavirus. This will allow us to decrease the number of probable cases related to this infection."
The Flemish tourism minister, Zuhal Demir, suggested on Tuesday that the way Belgium counts coronavirus deaths would be harmful for tourism. She believes the relatively high figure, compared per-capita with other countries, gives the impression that Belgium is a high-risk country.
How are the tests done?
Belgium is currently testing about 11,000 people per day, said federal minister Philippe De Backer. "We could perform up to 45,000 tests per day but hopefully we will not need to reach this capacity if we hold the virus by the skin of its neck and don't let go," he said. So far, more than 250,000 tests have been carried out in Belgium since the epidemic began.
German laboratory CureVac will begin clinical trials for a coronavirus vaccine in Belgium this June. The studies will be carried out on 2,000 to 3,000 people. The VUB's biotech industry, VIB, has donated a robot capable of carrying out an additional 1,000 tests a day. The machine can process 96 nasal or throat swab tests in three hours.
Today, the Belgian strategy is to test people who are suspected to have been infected. As a result, the numbers are lower than the reality, because many people do not show symptoms, and the number of tests carried out is limited by the capacity of labs. But RTBF reports that another way is possible. An antibody test would make it possible to find out if someone has built up immunity to the virus - and could therefore be able to leave their house and return to work.
ULB immunity specialist Michel Goldman has written to minister Philippe De Backer calling for these tests to be rapidly made available. Goldman says the tests should first be made available to medical staff and people working in other critical jobs such as public transport and distribution of essential goods. "Investing massively in these tests makes sense economically, by limiting the magnitude and duration of the economic crisis," he says. Liège company Zentech is preparing to begin production of antibody tests, after a successful trial among 500 people. A royal decree prohibits the sale of self-testing kits in Belgium - but they could be administered by a pharmacist.
How is Belgium handling this?
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."
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
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. The estimates are based on a seven-week restriction in movement and trade - that is, until 3 May.
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.