Why Does Belgium Have the World’s Highest COVID-19 Death Rate?

By Felipe Araujo, Philippe Legrain, Ana Ionova, Avtar Singh
Medics ready to load a patient infected with COVID-19 into a waiting helicopter to be transfered from Verviers hospital to Antwerp, on November 9, 2020. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

It used to be, in a not so distant past, that countries were judged on their economic performance, the inclusiveness of their institutions, and their ability to hold democratic elections.

Flash forward to today, and a nation’s standing on the international stage hinges less on abstract notions of good governance, and more on something very concrete: its capacity to contain the coronavirus. Take Belgium, for example.

The country of 11.5 million people sits at the heart of Europe and is home to the continent’s most powerful institutions. But that hasn’t stopped it from rising to the top of a list no nation wants to be on: It now has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world—1,385 per 1 million residents, according to Worldometer.

In the past two weeks, on average, Belgium registered 3,926 new coronavirus cases and 173 deaths per day. Belgium’s public hospitals, among the best in Europe, have been overwhelmed, admitting almost 700 coronavirus patients daily. Non-essential shops and businesses were told to close on Nov. 2 and will stay shuttered for at least another week.

With 180 nationalities, 100 languages spoken, and two out of three residents born abroad, Brussels is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. On one hand, this cultural diversity is what makes Brussels an attractive place to live. On the other, this hugely mobile population might have inadvertently contributed to the spread of the virus.

“Belgium is a small beehive in the heart of Europe, which makes the country very vulnerable to both the introduction and the further spread of the virus,” said virologist and interfederal COVID-19 spokesperson, Steven Van Gucht. “The people working and living in the so-called ‘Eurobubble’ travel a great deal, often going back and forth between Belgium and their home country.”

There’s also something else: Belgium is a deeply divided country. A new government was formed in September, with Alexander De Croo named as the prime minister. But before De Croo’s election the country had been without a fully fledged government since December 2018, when its dysfunctional four-party coalition disintegrated. The two largest parties, the French-speaking Socialists and Flemish separatist N-VA, can’t find a way to get along. The solution was a seven-party coalition across four political groups, nicknamed Vivaldi, after the colors of the four seasons: the Greens, orange for the Flemish Christian-Democrats, blue for the liberals, and red for the socialists.

Since moving to Brussels in 2018, I have been often struck by the lack of national cohesion. The country consists of French-speaking Wallonia in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flanders region in the north. Brussels, the capital, is considered bilingual, but located in the north of the country, finds itself surrounded by a sea of Dutch-speaking towns and cities.

Decisions regarding foreign affairs, defense, justice, finance, social security, home affairs, and certain public health decisions are taken at the federal level. Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, defined along linguistic and cultural lines, handle education, culture, youth welfare, and other aspects of health policy as three sovereign entities. Each region also has its own legislative and executive powers.

On a map, Belgium looks like one country. But on the ground, it is at least two, arguably three. During the first wave of infections back in spring, the wealthier Flanders region was the hardest hit of the three, with deaths in care homes particularly high. Now, in this second wave, it is Francophone Wallonia and Brussels that are suffering the most.

As the virus continues to rage, the authorities’ response has been shaped by regional priorities and political objectives. When De Croo took his oath a few weeks ago, contrary to the advice of health experts and perhaps as an attempt to unite the country under one single vision, he pointedly said he wanted to avoid a new lockdown: “Let me be very clear: Our country, our economy and our businesses can’t handle a new general lockdown.”

The situation described above might seem akin to a failed state, where corruption is endemic and citizens have no rights. But Belgium is in fact a relatively wealthy nation, with an economy guided by science and technological development. People from all over the world flock here to work and study.

It is a far cry from Brazil, where I was born, and which is among the three countries with the largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to wear a mask most of the time, keeps on shaking people’s hands, disregards social distancing rules, while encouraging his supporters to go out onto the streets to protest against lockdown measures imposed by state governors. Even after contracting the virus back in July, Bolsonaro continued to play down its seriousness.

The Brazilian federal government’s denial of science has led to a failure to coordinate, promote, and finance internationally sanctioned public health measures. The health ministry has not developed a national plan to combat the pandemic, nor has any other federal government agency. Against the federal government’s inertia, it has been down to state and local officials, as well as civil society groups, to try to put measures in place to mitigate the effects of the virus.

Culture matters. Both Belgium and Brazil, although different in almost every other way, are federalist nations where general consensus is hard to come by. People in such countries are encouraged to have different views, speak their minds, and question the central government’s political decisions. In both nations, the pandemic has helped to expand—not shrink—historical, regional, and societal rifts. In Belgium, industry-rich Flanders fears it will be the one doing the heavy lifting to get the economy back on its feet. In Brazil, much like in the United States, mask-wearing has become political, with Bolsonaro supporters dismissing the preventive measures to contain the virus, while the rest of the population does its best to stay safe.

In theory, neither country needed to be in this position. For months, what was being asked of citizens to avoid the spread of the disease was the bare minimum: stay home, wash your hands, avoid crowds—hardly an effort requiring much in the form of money or technology. What it did need was something lacking in most Western capitalist societies but found in abundance in other more remote parts of the world: a collective spirit.

Places we tend to hear about only when there’s a natural disaster or some kind of political unrest—Mozambique, Senegal, Rwanda, Malaysia, Vietnam—have been giving other nations a master class on how to act during a global pandemic. The lesson: Communitarian societies have the social capital and mutual support to allow curfews, self-isolation, quarantining, and social distancing to work, even among the poorest.

The West, on the other hand, addicted to consumption and competition, is currently suffering as much from the pandemic as from the effects of the preventive measures put in place. A day after the end of the first lockdown in Brussels back in spring, there were queues forming outside the H&M store in the city center.

Ultimately, this isn’t much about good governments or bad governments as it is about values. Some of the most successful countries in fighting the pandemic are also some of the most corrupt and repressive. As awful as Bolsonaro is as president, or dysfunctional Belgium is as a government, the high COVID-19 death toll in both countries could have been avoided if only there was a bit more empathy and solidarity. Years ago, in London, a Chinese lady told me the reason why she wore a mask wasn’t because she was afraid she would catch something from others; she wore a mask because she didn’t want to pass on her germs.

As populations all over the world face lockdown fatigue, people long for a return to normal. But “normal” is what got us here in the first place. The transmission of this virus is determined by one factor only: people’s behavior. No country, no government—rich or poor, democratic or otherwise—will prevail against this invisible enemy, unless we all become team players rather than rugged individualists.