Spain slammed over care of elderly during coronavirus crisis

Conditions at elderly care homes in the Spanish regions of Madrid and Catalonia, where thousands died when the pandemic began, remain "alarming" despite improvements, Amnesty International has warned.

Spain slammed over care of elderly during coronavirus crisis
Photo: AFP

In a sharply worded report on retirement homes during the pandemic, Amnesty said the “vast majority” of seniors had not been properly cared for, and that the measures put in place by both regions were “inefficient and inadequate”, and violated their rights.   

Spain has been one of Europe's worst-hit countries, with the virus infecting more than 1.6 million people and causing nearly 46,000 deaths.   

Close to half of that number are believed to be elderly people who died in homes, Amnesty said in the report published last Thursday, indicating that an upcoming Spanish government report was expected to put the figure at between 47 and 50 percent.

“The vast majority of older people living in residences in Madrid and Catalonia were not properly looked after, nor referred to hospitals when needed, were isolated in their rooms, sometimes for weeks, without contact with their families and some weren't even able to die with dignity” during the first months of the pandemic, it said.

Although some improvements had been made, “the situation in residential homes remains alarming in the second wave,” Amnesty said.   

Regional protocols that recommended treating older people in residences rather than sending them to hospital “have not been changed” despite being shown to be “discriminatory”, family visits were still not guaranteed nor had the authorities taken the necessary steps to strengthen staffing levels, it said.

Amnesty said denying older people the right to health care was strongly linked to the austerity measures and public healthcare cuts following the 2008 financial crisis.

“A health emergency is no excuse for not providing adequate care for the elderly. Homes are not car parks for elderly people,” said Esteban Beltran, director of Amnesty's Spain office.

“The authorities must protect them.”

Urgent action needed    

Not only had the elderly's rights to health, life and non-discrimination been violated by the authorities decisions but also their right to a family life and a dignified death, he said.

Citing regional figures, Amnesty said between March 8 and May 1, a total of 5,828 older people died in residences in the Madrid region, or 43.46 percent of all deaths within the area.

And in Catalonia, 7,045 seniors died in care homes between March 1 and November 15, accounting for 46.9 percent of the regional death toll.    

Amnesty said both regions “must take urgent action”, to change their hospital referral protocols, while the central government needed to push through legislation “guaranteeing the rights of older people living in homes across the country”.

It also recommended that the public prosecutor's office “closely monitor” the situation in residences and ensure investigations into any abuses or irregularities.

UPDATE: How is the Covid-19 situation across Spain as Christmas approaches?

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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.