How life in Spain has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic

While the coronavirus epidemic in Spain is largely under control it has left its mark on the country and its social culture, writes Graham Keeley. Although perhaps foreigners and Spaniards will see the changes differently?

How life in Spain has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic
Life in Spain feels different. AFP

Days before the lockdown in March, we had the luck of seeing Bill Bailey. 

If you don't know him, you should: a comic of understated genius in my humble opinion. 

One of his gags sticks in my mind just now. 

He was telling us that he hails from a part of the English countryside so backward that people point when they see planes. 

Three months later, I have become one of those people; when two planes flew over the other day, I found myself gawking at them. 


It made me think how many subtle changes we may notice as the world returns to some kind of normality. 

Apart from the lovely lack of planes in the sky and hearing the birds in the morning, anyone arriving in Spain right now will be struck by another absence: tourists. 

Of course, since last weekend, there has been a steady trickle. But the normal summer avalanche has not started – and may not until later on in the season. 

The results are obvious. 

Take Barcelona for starters. Usually, by this point in the summer, you can hardly walk along the streets for the gangs of holidaymakers.

Not so now. 

Anyone working in the tourist industry must be desperate for the usual suspects to arrive so they can earn a living and who can blame them. But for the rest of us, it is quite pleasant. 

There is another reason for this of course. Just as Spain edges out of what we hope was the worse of the epidemic, the arrival of thousands of tourists risks wasting all that sacrifice during months of lockdown. 

Put more simply, we do not want coronavirus imported to Spain, even if by accident. 

Few tourists visit the usually crowded old city of Cordoba on March 14, 2020.AFP

All this comes to mind right now as the Spanish government passed legislation on Thursday to define what is the 'new normality'. 

This bill consists of a plethora of measures by which we must live our lives here. 

I wonder if what you notice about this new world depends on whether you view Spain with foreign eyes or those of a Spaniard? 

Maybe Spaniards will miss the kissing and hugging which feel so normal in this tactile country?

To us reticent north Europeans, holding off the kissing will seem almost normal. 

Whatever, perhaps the most important change is how we socialise.

All the foreign residents I know have been avoiding restaurants or bars. Most of these places are packed, many people do not wear masks and they seem potentially pretty dangerous. 

So, it seems most foreigners are only meeting among friends, with quiet dinners at each others' friends. 

So far, I have been to a restaurant twice and – hands up– it felt like a very guilty pleasure. Everyone was wearing masks, cleaning their hands in gel. 

The beaches are often crowded, so the only safe way to enjoy them is to go when there are not so many people there. 

So if you hit the beach before 11am, it is cool enough and empty enough to guarantee there is less chance of catching something you don't want to. 

People sit at a terrace bar near the Sagrada Familia on 25 May, 2020 in Barcelona. AFP

Equally, if you go to a restaurant before 2pm – the dining hour – you are more likely to find enough space to be safe. 

We are all socialising within the limits of Covid-19. Or that is how it seems. 

Judging from scenes on some beaches, restaurants, bars – it seems the memories of the lockdown are short. I have seen large groups of people mixing on the beaches.

Of course you imagine they are all friends who know they have all isolated safely over the past few months. But a series of outbreaks have been blamed on parties just like these. 

Spain's health officials have said these isolated cases are under control but did say that as people start to travel around again, this was the moment to be careful. 

The next step is the return to work. Already people are going into offices, if only briefly. 

You wonder if this is really necessary. 

Part of me thinks that the whole office culture may be a thing of the past. But, obviously, there are many who will not be able to avoid the workplace forever.  Not everyone can work from a laptop. 

Another change which is discernible is in the 'holiday culture'. In more normal times, we would be gearing up for that annual break somewhere nice. 

Instead, many people are changing their plans or having them changed for them as holiday companies cancel trips booked long ago. 

Reluctantly, I think I may have to delay plans to travel to Scotland. With Britain still locked down, flights to the UK and simply getting around the place look more of an effort than fun. Infection rates are still prohibitively high too.

I imagine those with second homes in Spain may be thinking the other way round; Spain appears to have the coronavirus under more control than the UK so grabbing a bit of sun seems pretty attractive. 

When they arrive here it could be something of a shock. 

Things may not be very different to what they left behind.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.