Belgium’s death toll from the novel coronavirus passed the 500 mark Monday, with almost 12,000 cases detected since the start of the epidemic.
Health authorities in the country of 11.4 million said 513 COVID-19 deaths had been recorded and 11,899 cases confirmed by laboratory tests.
But officials said the rise in admissions to hospital and to intensive care units had slowed slightly over the previous 24 hours.
“We’re not at the peak, but at what we call the inflection point — that means the force of the epidemic is beginning to diminish thanks to the efforts we have all made over the last two weeks,” said Emmanuel Andre, spokesman for government’s epidemic team.
“It is extremely important to keep up these efforts — just because the curve is softening slightly today, it doesn’t mean it won’t get worse if we let up our efforts.”
On Friday, Belgium extended lockdown measures by two weeks to April 18 to slow the spread of the virus.
Schools, restaurants and most shops are closed, entry to supermarkets is restricted to allow room for social distancing and people have been told to work from home.
Outdoor sports activities and walks outside are still allowed, but only in small groups, with a friend or with family members living under the same roof.
Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said the lockdown could be extended by another two weeks to May 3 if the spread of the virus demanded it.
The number of coronavirus cases recorded in Belgium surged past 2,000 on Friday and the number of deaths attributed to the disease COVID-19 jumped up by 16 to 37.
According to the country’s national crisis centre, 462 new confirmed cases of the virus have been reported, bringing the total to 2,257 in a country of 11.4 million people.
Two-thirds of the new cases overnight were in Dutch-speaking Flanders, in northern Belgium.
Emmanuel Andre, a spokesman for the crisis centre, said Belgium was better prepared than Italy had been when it became the focus of the European outbreak, but that hospitals would need more space for the most serious cases.
In the past 24 hours another 203 people have been admitted to hospital in Belgium, and 164 of them will require intensive care, such as breathing assistance.
“The average age of those hospitalised is around 60,” he said. “In Belgium we have 1,900 beds equipped with ventilators, and places are being set up today to increase this number.”
“We are expecting demand to increase in the coming days,” Andre warned.
Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic that emerged in China in December, with Italy now the hardest country.
Belgium is now one of several European countries to order a national lockdown, although one less sternly enforced than in neighbouring France — and with more exceptions.
Already, bars and restaurants are shut and many people have been asked to work from home and to avoid socialising and crowds, but officials expect the measures to tighten.
“Everyone should respect these measures, and in my opinion, exceptions to the rules will come to an end in the coming days,” another crisis centre spokesman Benoit Ramacker said.
Not all patients who fall into a coma return, and when they do it can mark a moment of joy for their loved ones — but their troubles are rarely over.
Often, brain damage leaves them paralysed or unable to communicate.
Belgian neurologist Steven Laureys has dedicated himself to the question of how to improve the lives of the formerly comatose, and of their families.
And on Thursday, his work was recognised with a million-euro ($1.1 million) grant from the King Baudouin Foundation, presented by the Belgian king’s sister, Princess Astrid.
The award will support the work of Laureys’ world-class Coma Science Group at the University Hospital of Liege, in the south of the country.
“Our ignorance about the brain is enormous,” Laureys told AFP at his clinic, lamenting that the patients that he sees have been “neglected” by medical science.
Laureys, who leads a team of 30 researchers, sees a “silent epidemic” of cases of patients who were revived from a coma but with their consciousness limited to varying degrees.
Around 150 cases a year are recorded in Belgium alone. Some leave intensive care able to open their eyes, but only move in reaction to outside stimuli.
In other, rarer, cases full consciousness returns but the patient’s body remains paralysed, limiting or preventing two-way communication with carers and loved ones.
The possibilities for treatment are limited, but the 51-year-old doctor says the royal grant will help his team study one promising route — the use of the drug apomorphine.
Already used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and in tackling some addictions, apomorphine could prove effective in the “gentle and gradual” treatment of brain damage.
“For patients with brain injuries, there’s no current treatment that has proven truly effective. If we find one, that will make a great difference to patients’ quality of life,” said researcher Leandro Sanz.
Laureys’ group tackles Belgium’s toughest cases, those where a head trauma, brain haemorrhage or cardiac arrest plunges a patient into a coma and causes serious brain damage.
One of their most celebrated cases was that of Belgian professional cyclist Stig Broeckx, who was involved in a catastrophic crash in May 2016 on the Tour of Belgium.
He suffered several brain injuries and spent six months in a coma. Today, he can ride a bike once more.
“He regained motor control and intellectual function, he’s a true athlete with great motivation,” said Laureys.
Thursday’s ceremony saw Laureys awarded the Generet Prize, a grant from the King Baudouin Foundation named after the former Belgian monarch that manages 44.8 million euros in donations.
The first edition of the prize in 2018 went to Professor Miikka Vikkula, a Finnish specialist in vascular medicine working in Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain.
Belgian authorities said Friday they have launched an investigation into online threats against an accomplice of notorious child-killer Marc Dutroux following his release from prison.
Michel Lelievre was targeted by posts on a secret Facebook group calling for members of the public to track him down in Brussels and “make his life hell until his death,” according to Belgian media reports.
Lelievre, 48, was granted conditional release from prison on December 2.
He was sentenced in 2004 to 25 years behind bars for helping Dutroux abduct and rape six girls in the mid-1990s. Two of Dutroux’s victims were murdered and two died of starvation in a dungeon he kept in the basement of his home.
Dutroux, aged 63 and still serving a life sentence in prison, is considered one of the worst criminals in Belgium’s history.
Lelievre, his go-to assistant, was convicted of helping him kidnap two teenage girls in 1995 whose bodies were later found next to those of two eight-year-old girls buried on one of Dutroux’s properties.
He was also sentenced for abetting Dutroux in the abduction of two other girls who were found alive, kept captive in a house in the southern city of Charleroi.
Last week, Lelievre was beaten in his Brussels apartment by unidentified intruders, forcing him to quickly find a new address in one of the Belgian regions permitted under the terms of his release.
The Facebook group, which has since been closed down, contained posts from participants apparently writing under their real identities urging further vigilante persecution.
“Our system of justice is incapable of protecting its citizens, so it’s up to the people to ensure their own security,” one message reportedly said, calling for “this ferocious beast to be hunted down”.
The Brussels prosecutors office confirmed to AFP that an investigation had been opened into the threats.
Dimitar Dimitrov, executive director of the Bulgarian Chamber of Road Hauliers, told AFP many foreign hauliers registered in Bulgaria for financial reasons, and doubted whether a Bulgarian firm would employ Irish drivers.
Britain’s National Crime Agency said the number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and trucks had risen in the last year.
In May the NCA said there had been “increasing use of higher risk methods of clandestine entry” to Britain by organised immigration crime gangs.
‘Evil’ contempt for life
Jackie Doyle-Price, the MP representing the local Thurrock constituency, called people trafficking a “vile and dangerous business”.
“To put 39 people into a locked metal container shows a contempt for human life that is evil,” she said.
The gruesome discovery drew comparisons to previous cases.
In 2000, the bodies of 58 clandestine Chinese immigrants were discovered in a Dutch truck at the southeastern English port of Dover. Two people survived.
In 2014, some 34 Afghan Sikhs were found inside a shipping container at Tilbury port — next to Grays — suffering from severe dehydration, hypothermia and lack of air. One man was found dead, having passed away during the sea crossing from Belgium.
In August 2015, at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis, the bodies of 71 migrants including a baby girl were found piled up in the back of a poultry refrigerator lorry left in Austria.
Investigations later revealed they had been transported along the Balkan migrant route and left to suffocate in the back of the truck after the driver dumped the vehicle near the Hungarian border.
Britain and the European Union reached a last-ditch Brexit deal on Thursday, just hours before an EU summit that is expected to give it a seal of approval.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson will still have to take the accord to a sceptical British parliament for its backing on Saturday, and it is far from certain that it will pass.
Johnson, who has pledged to take Britain out of the EU with or without an agreement, tweeted: “We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control — now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday.”
EU officials are pleased they avoided an immediate crisis at the European Council summit, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recommended that the other 27 EU leaders endorse the deal.
“Where there is a will, there is a deal — we have one! It’s a fair and balanced agreement for the EU and the UK and it is testament to our commitment to find solutions,” Juncker tweeted.
The draft agreement was forged just weeks before Britain was due to leave the bloc on October 31, ending more than four decades of close economic and political ties with its nearest neighbours.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said: “We have managed to find solutions that fully respect the integrity of the single market.
“We created a new and legally operative solution to avoid a hard border, and protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland,” he said.
“It is a solution that works for the EU, for the UK and for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”
One immediate hurdle is opposition from Johnson’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which pre-emptively rejected the compromise.
The agreement would see the British-ruled province remain under EU customs and Value Added Tax (VAT) rules, and the loyalist DUP announced that it can not support it.
It is not clear how many of Johnson’s Conservative MPs will back the deal, and if the British opposition could vote it down or attempt to force a nationwide referendum to approve or reject it.
Before setting off for Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted approvingly that London had been ready to negotiate and put “concrete proposals on the table”.
Under the measures to replace the so-called “Irish backstop” in the previous failed agreement, the plan would see Northern Ireland remain British legal territory but trade under EU regulations.
This is intended to prevent the return of a hard border with EU-member Ireland. But, because it would involve some customs and tax checks with the rest of the UK, it raised the hackles of the DUP.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier was to give a news conference to outline more details of the deal.
But one EU source told AFP the agreement “is politically fragile in London” because of Johnson’s reliance on votes from the DUP and Conservative eurosceptics.
The leaders also hope the summit will rise above the Brexit mire and focus on the EU budget debate, bids by North Macedonia and Albania to start talks to join the bloc, and the crisis in relations with Turkey.
The Brexit issue is first on the agenda, with the EU’s 27 other leaders to hear Johnson speak then retire to mull their response. But the issue could be delayed to Friday if the deal text needs more work.
Belgium became the first team to qualify for the 2020 European Championship finals after thrashing San Marino 9-0 in Brussels on Thursday.
Romelu Lukaku took his record Belgian international tally past 50 goals with a double as Roberto Martinez’s Group I leaders opened up an unassailable 11-point lead over third-placed Cyprus with three games remaining.
The world-number-one ranked side booked their spot at next year’s tournament, which will be played at 12 venues across Europe, after seven straight qualifying wins.
Russia appear set to take the second automatic slot from the group, after a 4-0 win over Scotland moved them eight points ahead of Cyprus.
Belgium will be one of the favourites as they look to lift a first major international title when the Euros get underway on June 12.
Belgium were forced to wait until the 28th minute for the initial breakthrough on Thursday, which arrived when Leicester midfielder Youri Tielemans fed Lukaku, who fired home his landmark goal under San Marino goalkeeper Simone Benedettini.
The floodgates then opened, as Nacer Chadli slotted into the corner from the edge of the area three minutes later, and visiting defender Cristian Brolli scored a comical own goal 10 minutes before the interval as Benedettini pushed the ball against his knee and into the net.
Lukaku wasted little time in making it 51 Belgium goals with a low, right-footed effort, before Toby Alderweireld’s deflected strike and Tielemans’ drive made it six before half-time.
Substitute Christian Benteke drilled in number seven with 11 minutes remaining, 18-year-old Yari Verschaeren scored his first international goal from the penalty spot, and Atalanta defender Timothy Castagne completed the rout in the 90th minute.