MSF urges dignity for elderly dying from coronavirus in Spain

The MSF medical charity lamented Monday that many elderly COVID-19 victims are dying alone amid fears the virus will spread, urging greater efforts to ensure dignified deaths amid the pandemic.

MSF urges dignity for elderly dying from coronavirus in Spain
Photo: AFP

Luis Encinas, the medical coordinator for MSF's mission in Spain, said the situation in that country, where the virus has killed more than 13,000 people, was especially worrying for the elderly.

“Old people are dying alone in hospitals but as well as nursing homes, without the company of loved ones,” he told reporters in a virtual briefing.   

“Procedures need to definitely be adapted immediately to allow these people to be comfortable at the end of their lives,” he said.   


He urged countries to heed the lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak in west Africa that killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016.    

Early on in that crisis, those taken sick were whisked away by people in protective suits often to die alone and be buried with no family present amid concerns of contagion.

The effect was that people balked and refused to follow safety instructions, putting themselves and others at risk.

It quickly became apparent that families and communities needed to be involved in decisions around end-of-life care and to be present for burials that were not only safe but also dignified.

'Find a balance'

Encinas insisted the same was true during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, insisting that while safety must be a top concern, “we need to find a balance.”    

“If you just focus on pure protection… and do not really involve family members, you really can provoke… no support of your decisions,” he said.    

He pointed to a project in Barcelona, where authorities have called for the creation of “comfort hotels” for COVID-19 patients with little time left to live, providing them a space where they can safely interact with family members.   

The idea is to equip hotels left during the crisis with proper infection prevention control and with the staff needed to keep patients comfortable, “and all the things related to the dignity, medical and psychological support for the patient and for the family,” Encinas said.    

He stressed that there was a huge need for such a system, pointing out that Spain's official count of more than 135,000 cases was surely far lower than the actual number.

“We are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. We don't have a clear picture of what is going on,” said Encinas.

His colleague Chiara Lepora, who coordinates MSF's operations in Italy's hard-hit Lodi province southeast of Milan, said the same was true in Italy, which has the world's highest death count in the pandemic at 15,877.    

She said it was unclear how many people were dying with or from COVID-19 outside of hospital settings, but said many municipalities in Lodi were seeing higher overall mortality rates.

“In the nursing homes we visited (in the province), we encountered between 10 and 30 percent mortality rate of the patient population,” she told the virtual briefing.

“Those numbers correspond to the lethality rate for COVID-19 in those age groups, but is nonetheless a tragedy in a confinement situation.”    

MSF staff had also found that between 30 and 50 percent of all staff in the various nursing homes they visited were infected with the new coronavirus, she said.


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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.