When COVID-19 hit the Westervier nursing home—a residential care center in the Belgian city of Bruges—it struck with swift severity.
“We had residents talking in the living room in the morning. Then they became short of breath. Then drowsy. And in the evening they were gone. It went very fast,” said Dirk Snauwaert, director of Westervier.
Snauwaert’s facility saw 25 deaths in the first two weeks of April. By June, 38 of his 118 residents had died of COVID-19, or about a third of the facility’s population. Workers carted the deceased’s belongings—artwork, books, leather chairs, and boxes of knickknacks—to an underground garage where they sat in empty parking spaces once reserved for visitors.
Already health officials had placed Belgium’s nursing homes on lockdown, prohibiting visitors, including family, hoping to stop the spread. But indoors the virus spread rapidly, brought in initially, many believe, through caregivers or visitors returning from skiing vacations in Italy.
Belgium, long known as the country through which all of Europe’s wars march, has played an outsize role in the continent’s battle with the coronavirus. Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom gained attention for their extensive outbreaks; Belgium—with land mass roughly equivalent to Maryland but twice that state’s population—has held the world’s highest recorded mortality rate.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in Belgium surpassed 60,000 in mid-June, with more than 9,600 deaths—for a chart-topping mortality rate of 85 deaths per 100,000 persons, according to Johns Hopkins University. That contrasts with a mortality rate in the United Kingdom (which leads Europe in total cases) of 64 per 100,000 and with a U.S. mortality rate of 37 per 100,000. Belgium’s reported caseload has tracked Michigan’s—its number of deaths is nearly 4,000 higher.
The numbers are bad enough that eight European countries did not reciprocate when Belgium reopened its borders to Europe. A further 12 required Belgians to quarantine before visiting. The restrictions came as a stunning rebuke for Belgians who’ve endured a strict lockdown since March and have prided themselves for a transparent accounting of deaths, including suspected cases of COVID-19.
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