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COVID-19

Why is Spain once again a world hotspot for the pandemic?

Despite having imposed draconian coronavirus lockdown and making the use of face masks in public mandatory, Spain is once again on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why?

Why is Spain once again a world hotspot for the pandemic?
Nuns wearing masks in Madrid on Friday. Photo: Oscar Del Pozo/AFP
The country has nearly 378,000 confirmed cases of the respiratory disease, the highest amount in Western Europe, and one of the fastest growth rates on the continent.
   
Spain counted 143 new cases per 100,000 people during the past two weeks, compared to just 50 in neighbouring France, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
   
Nearly 29,000 people have died because of the virus, one of the world's highest tolls.
   
Spanish authorities argue the rise in confirmed cases is partly because the country has ramped up testing.
   
Spain has tested more than 5.3 million people, or around 11.5 percent of its population, since the start of the pandemic.
   
But many of its main neighbours have an even higher testing rate — Germany has tested 12.2 percent of its population, Italy 12.8 percent and Britain 22.1 percent.
 
   
Some have suggested that social norms that stress physical contact and encourage families to live in larger, multi-generational households have encouraged contagion in Spain.
   
But these norms are also prevalent in Italy, which has a far lower virus growth rate.
   
So why has the pandemic worsened in Spain? Experts say a backlash against the strict lockdown which began in mid-March and was only fully lifted on June 21 is partly to blame.
 
'Not the best strategy'
 
At the height of the lockdown people could only go outside to buy food or medicine, seek medical care or go to work if they could not do so from home.
   
Exercising outdoors was not allowed until early April and for weeks children were not allowed outside at all.
   
This “severe” lockdown created a “desire to make up for lost time” once the measures were lifted that sparked COVID-19 outbreaks, said Salvador Macip, an expert in health sciences at Catalonia's Open University.
   
The authorities introduced rules on social distancing and wearing masks after the lockdown ended without stressing the need to remain “very careful”, he added.
   
Jorge Ruiz Ruiz, a sociologist at the Institute for Advanced Social Studies, a public research institute, echoes this view.
   
“Months of total isolation was perhaps not the best strategy to promote social responsibility,” once restrictions were lifted, he said.
   
Faced with a surge in infections, Spanish authorities earlier this month introduced a series of measures which targeted socialising, such as ordering the closure of nightclubs and reducing restaurant opening hours, as well as a ban on smoking outdoors if it is not possible to maintain a distance of two metres (6.7 feet) between people.
   
These rules, along with those limiting the size of social gatherings and requiring the use of face masks, are “extremely difficult” for youths to respect, Ruiz said.
   
“We are asking them not to let loose when they go out to have fun,” he added.
 
 
Lack of coordination
 
 Spain's decentralised system of government which places responsibility for healthcare makes it hard to develop a common national strategy.   
 
“Working cooperatively was difficult and it still is,” said Pilar Serrano, the secretary of Madrid's public health association and a professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
   
Experts also blame Spain's decision to open its borders to tourists at the end of June to protect its key tourism sector for the rise in infections.
   
Over two million foreign visitors travelled to Spain by plane in July, according to the tourism ministry.
   
The opening up “happened very quickly” with more arrivals than in other countries, said Mancip.
   
The movement of seasonal agricultural workers, who follow the ripening of different crops across the country while living in crowded conditions, also favoured the spread of the virus, experts said.

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COVID-19

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.

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