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The COVID-19 pandemic is unquestionably the deadliest in Europe since the Spanish flu in 1918. Belgium has been particularly affected by the virus, with the highest incidence worldwide for the whole of 2020 (Worldometers, n.d.). During 2020 alone, more than twenty thousand deaths were attributed to COVID-19; in terms of excess mortality, 20 percent more deaths were recorded in comparison to the average for 2009–18 (Statbel, n.d.). The virus was identified in Belgium in late February and the first death attributed to COVID-19 was recorded on March 10. The pandemic developed in two waves of similar force with spikes in April and November (Figure 1). In 2021, the pandemic became less virulent, stabilizing in April with an average of forty deaths per day, and slowing significantly in June. At the time of writing (June 2021), more than twenty-five thousand deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, but a third or fourth wave seems to have been avoided. However, as the virus and its variants remain very active, epidemiologists and political leaders are counting on a large majority of the population getting vaccinated, in the hope of eradicating the pandemic before winter. It should be noted that the spike in deaths shown in Figure 1 in August 2020 is associated with a particularly deadly heat wave.
The first analyses of the available data show a mortality rate that is particularly high for older persons in comparison to young people (Bourguigno…


The COVID-19 pandemic is the deadliest in Europe since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Belgium has been particularly affected by the virus, with the highest incidence worldwide for the whole of 2020 and more than twenty thousand deaths attributed to COVID-19. Based on data provided by Statbel and Sciensano, the Belgian institutions in charge of producing statistics, we analyze the excess mortality during the first ten months of the pandemic, from March 1 to December 31, 2020, compared to previous years. This analysis shows that people aged eighty-five and older are the most affected by the pandemic. However, within this group, excess mortality is lower among the older members and seems to disappear for centenarians. There is no notable difference by gender, and the often-highlighted negative impact of living in a nursing home must be put into context. To date, there is no explanation for the better survival rate of centenarians in the face of COVID-19 and we are limited to hypothesizing about selection effects at work during their long lives, the living conditions in their early youth—the period after the First World War—and, more speculatively, about exposure to the Spanish flu virus in 1918.

  • centenarians
  • longevity
  • COVID-19
  • mortality
  • Spanish flu

La survie des centenaires belges face à la pandémie du COVID-19

La pandémie liée au COVID-19 est la plus meurtrière qu’ait connue l’Europe depuis celle de la grippe espagnole en 1918. La Belgique a été particulièrement touchée par le virus puisqu’elle affichait le taux d’incidence le plus élevé à l’échelle mondiale pendant toute l’année 2020 avec plus de 20.000 décès attribués au COVID-19. Sur la base de données fournies par STATBEL et Sciensano, nous proposons une analyse de la surmortalité pendant les dix premiers dix mois de la pandémie du 1er mars au 31 décembre 2020, par comparaison aux années précédentes. Cette analyse montre que ce sont les plus âgés (85+) qui sont les plus touchés par la pandémie. Néanmoins, cette surmortalité diminue pour les personnes très âgées et semble s’estomper pour les centenaires. Il n’y a guère de différence selon le sexe tandis que l’impact négatif souvent mis en exergue de la résidence en maison de repos doit être relativisé. À ce jour, il n’existe pas d’explication qui puisse rendre compte de la meilleure survie des centenaires face au COVID-19. Nous en sommes réduits à émettre des hypothèses qui touchent aux effets de sélection au cours de leur vie séculaire, aux conditions de vie aux bas âges, à l’époque de la fin de la Grande Guerre ou encore, de façon plus spéculative, à l’exposition au virus de la grippe espagnole en 1918.

  • centenaires
  • longévité
  • COVID-19
  • mortalité
  • grippe espagnole
Michel Poulain
Demographer, professor emeritus, Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies (IACCHOS), UCLouvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium; Senior researcher, School of Governance, Law, and Society (SOGOLAS), Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia
Anne Herm
Researcher, SOGOLAS, Estonian Institute for Population Studies, Tallinn University, Estonia
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