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Belgian Officials Forced To Defend Calculations For COVID-19 Deaths

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the beginning of next week, Belgium will ease its lockdown measures in light of what the government calls progress in fighting the virus. But as Teri Schultz reports, the country's health experts have been forced to defend how their counting COVID-19 casualties.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Some Belgians are fuming at the negative attention their country is getting for what appears to be the world's worst death toll per capita from the coronavirus, a position prominently displayed on a chart President Trump used recently during one of his briefings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our mortality rate is far lower than other nations of Western Europe. This includes the U.K., Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France.

SCHULTZ: But it's the Belgians themselves who put their country at the top of the list with what scientific experts like Emmanuel Andre, a former spokesman for the crisis task force, insists is the world's most honest system of counting.

EMMANUEL ANDRE: (Speaking French).

SCHULTZ: "Our system of surveillance," he says, "which counts all the deaths in nursing homes as COVID-related, is not used by the countries with which we are compared." That means no matter whether someone who died in a nursing home was even tested for the coronavirus - and only a tiny percentage are - they're included in Belgium's national death toll. This category makes up more than half of Belgium's COVID-19 total, so authorities here say other countries' death tolls from the virus are likely double what they're reporting.

When the national crisis center looked at excess mortality, the additional number of people dying from all causes compared with before the pandemic, Belgium's numbers were in line with its neighbors. Belgian experts have rejected pressure to change their methods despite being accused of making their country look bad. Emmanuel Andre says, on the contrary - other countries must adopt the Belgian way of counting if they want to understand the toll the virus is truly taking.

For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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