OPINION: There are lessons to be learnt from Spain’s tackling of coronavirus crisis

Much criticism has been levelled at the Spanish government during the past week for its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

OPINION: There are lessons to be learnt from Spain's tackling of coronavirus crisis
Photo: AFP

With Spain’s death toll surpassing China’s, and our host country reporting the second most deaths world-wide, it has drawn a lot of media attention, both nationally and internationally.

As in the UK, coronavirus has revealed underlying issues in the Spanish health and social care systems, caused by a decade of austerity.

Medical professionals are desperate for support and supplies, including personal protective equipment. However, Spain is far from alone here, with key frontline workers from New York to London saying they’re in the same boat. Social media posts showing medical staff wearing bin bags and homemade masks are a terrifyingly familiar sight.

The disparity between global death and infection ratios highlights the underspending on vital health and social care services in many countries, not least Spain and the UK.

The numbers of doctors, nurses and intensive care beds per capita might go some way to explaining why Germany’s death rate is only 0.4 percent while Italy stands at around 10 percent, Spain 7 percent and the UK 5 percent.

Whilst spending on essential services is not the sole factor – it’s believed that the Italian and Spanish lifestyle of multi-generational living also contributes, as does the ageing population of Italy – it’s certainly a significantly important one.

Add to that the fact that Germany is ramping up testing to 500,000 per week, and you start to understand the disparities.

Spain has been criticised for failing to lock down Madrid sooner and for allowing the Women’s Day mass gathering to proceed – this was attended by an estimated 350,000 to 370,000 people.

Schools in Madrid closed a week before the national ‘state of alert’ was announced, perhaps causing many Madrileños to start packing their bags.

On March 13th, when the quarantine measures were announced, the Madrileños started deserting their capital on mass, congesting motorways as they headed for second homes.

The no-travel rule was not enforced for a further 24 hours. With most Covid-19 cases concentrated in Madrid, this was undoubtedly a major source of spreading the virus around the country.

It was also a mistake previously made in Italy, when the lockdown of its “red zone” was leaked in the press a day beforehand, leading to an exodus of infected people.

Despite making avoidable mistakes, when Spain did lock down, it did so decisively and without any Boris Johnson-style half measures. The rules are strict, correctly enforced and with severe penalties for those who think they know better.

When the UK finally announced its social distancing measures on Sunday 29th, the British media called them “draconian”.

Yet they fall short of recommendations coming both from other countries and the World Health Organisation.

With lots of “shoulds” on board, Johnson told the British public it’s important to stay home, while cabinet ministers constantly undermined his ‘advice’.

Many people still went out to work – whether through financial necessity, a failure to take the crisis seriously, or because unscrupulous employers insisted their roles were “essential”.

Meanwhile, we have well-meaning social media commentators extolling the mental and physical health benefits of daily exercise, as the UK government tell citizens they can exercise once a day. How they intend to police that policy remains to be seen.

So, while we here in Spain are restricted to no outdoor exercise apart from a short walk with your (not somebody else’s!) dog, Brits are off for a long walk or jog, or off to their allotment to dig for victory! I’m with Spain here. Much as I miss my occasional stroll and twice-weekly gym sessions, the risks to my physical and mental wellbeing are outweighed by the risks of far more serious health issues.

Although some statisticians say that Spain’s infection peak might be reached soon, some find the daily death rate difficult to process. Our dedicated health staff, who we thank at 8pm daily with our applause, are having to decide who lives and who dies in overwhelmed hospitals, especially in Madrid.

The scale of the tragedy facing Spain, the UK – and now the US – is immense. We can only hope that the lockdown really is starting to slow the spread and is about to flatten the curve.

Of course, actions taken by the Spanish government must be scrutinised, and lessons must be learnt.

Other countries also need to examine their actions and must be open about any mistakes made. There is a place for criticism and a need to ask questions, but this cannot be a time for political point scoring.

Rather we must learn from our experiences, our mistakes, and make sure they are not repeated here, or anywhere else.

The pandemic is at different stages in different countries. Spain is roughly a week behind Italy and will likely catch up soon, as will the UK. It’s vital we learn lessons from countries such as South Korea, which implemented an extensive testing programme and is a leading international light in containing this dreadful virus.

Clearly there are lessons to be learned from the German approach too. The international community must work together, and in the open, to avoid a repeat of past mistakes.

Our hearts go out to all those grieving for lost loved ones, in most cases without having said goodbye – such is the cruelty of this pandemic.

We hope they will one day be able to put this terrible experience behind them and try to forget. Where deaths have resulted because lessons learned have been deliberately and wilfully ignored by governments, for whatever reason, we should never forget or forgive.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain




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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.