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Why does Catalonia have the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Spain and the EU?

Infection rates are shooting up in Spain more than in any other EU country, but in the region of Catalonia the incidence of Covid-19 is the highest in the bloc. Why is Catalonia’s infection rate spiralling out of control?

Why does Catalonia have the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Spain and the EU?
An e-scooter rider in Barcelona, where Covid cases have shot up the most in Catalonia. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Spain’s fortnightly infection rate is climbing exponentially, with 438 cases per 100,000 people reported on Tuesday July 13th, the highest rate since last February.

As the latest map by the ECDC reflects, the prevalance of the virus in Spain clashes with the relatively low incidence across the continent at the moment (Spain’s infection is higher still since the map below was published).

Cyprus (493 per 100,000) and parts of Portugal have higher or similar infection rates to Spain’s current rate, as well as the UK (not featured on the map as not part of EU), where the 14-day infection rate is nearing 500 cases per 100,000 people.

 why catalonia has highest infection rate in eu

However, there is no region anywhere else in Europe with a higher infection rate than Catalonia, where the infection rate is now a worrying 1,031 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

That’s more than double the national average and three times or more that of 11 other autonomous communities. 

Even though Covid cases have spiked across much of the territory, Catalonia’s infection rate is effectively pushing Spain’s national infection rate up.

“We are on a vertical curve,” Clara Prats, a researcher at Catalonia’s Bioscom research centre, told Spanish daily El Independiente about the upward trajectory of cases and how it’s quickly snowballing.

The following map by Bioscom shows just how prevalent high infection rates are across the region (click here for interactive version), not just in the capital Barcelona. 

Why does Catalonia have the highest infection rate in all of the EU?

Why is Catalonia’s infection rate so high?

Spain’s fifth wave is believed to have started as a result of San Juan celebrations on June 23rd, when the country’s infection rate stood at around 92 cases per 100,000.

By that stage, the country’s state of alarm had been over for more than a month, resulting in a general easing of Covid restrictions which in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid was celebrated by thousands of people in packed squares as if it meant the pandemic had ended.

This sense of “false security”, as described by leading epidemiologist and former WHO directive Daniel Lopez Acuña, has prevailed among young people from May into June as their school years ended and the summer weather pushed them to spend time in the streets. 

In a city like Barcelona, which has a large young cosmopolitan population and attracts thousands of international tourists looking to party, footage of squares and beaches packed with maskless revellers have become commonplace every weekend.

The Spanish government’s decision to lift the outdoor mask rule on June 26th together with the reopening of the city’s nightlife establishments (now closed again) have both contributed to making the incidence of the virus among young people go off the charts: more than 2,000 cases per 100,000 20 to 29 year olds.

But it’s the consolidation of the more transmissible Delta variant as the dominant strain in Catalonia together with the fact that it’s mainly unvaccinated young people in Catalonia who are getting infected that have ensured that Covid cases have multiplied by more than ten in just two weeks in the region of 7.6 million people. 

Moreover, the decision to suspend Covid tests for asymptomatic cases has been criticised as an apparent lack of interest by health authorities to trace infections and ensure young people who have Covid-19 quarantine for ten days. This responsibility has since been relayed to Catalonia’s pharmacies. 

“If you asked me if we’d lift restrictions when we did again, the answer is no,” Catalan Health Councillor Jose María Argimon told Catalonia’s TV3 when asked if the regional government had lifted Covid restrictions too soon. 

All these factors have added up and turned into a perfect storm that’s made Catalonia the region with the highest Covid infection rate in the whole of the EU.

Now it remains to be seen whether the Catalan government’s closure of nightclubs, extra police presence at night to break up street drinking, limits on social gatherings/busines hours and the possible return of the curfew will slow the region’s vertical curve. 

Considering that Barcelona’s R number is 3,1 at present (meaning 100 infected people infect another 310) and that only around 14 percent of 20 to 39 year olds have received at least one dose in the region, infections look set to continue rising in Catalonia.


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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.