Belgium's coronavirus deaths hit 20,000, still among world's highest per capita

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s death toll from coronavirus infections, one of the highest per capita in the world, has breached the 20,000 mark, according to official data published on Sunday.

The country, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, has played down comparisons that show it to be one of the world’s worst hit by the pandemic, but virologists point to some missteps and systemic problems. A country divided by language, Belgium gives regions substantial autonomy and has nine health ministers.

Public health institute Sciensano said 20,038 people have died in Belgium, according to the official count as of Sunday. An average of 58 people in Belgium died from COVID-19 each day in the seven days to Jan. 6, a decrease of 15% from the previous seven-day period.

Belgium is the second-highest in the world for deaths in proportion to its overall population, behind the tiny city state of San Marino, according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University updated on Saturday.

Belgium’s government imposed tighter restrictions in October to rein in a surge in infections, including a night curfew, mandatory working from home and the closure of bars and restaurants, but cases have started to tick up again in recent days.

The government said on Friday it would not tighten restrictions for now, but would review these at its next meeting on Jan. 22 when it should be clearer how the festive season and the reopening of schools has affected the caseload.

Reporting by Kate Abnett; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky