FOCUS: How Spain took the lead on vaccinations against Covid-19

Spain has become a leader of Europe's virus vaccination drive against Covid-19, due to a deep trust in the public health system and close-knit family ties that encourage people to get the jab to protect relatives.

FOCUS: How Spain took the lead on vaccinations against Covid-19
Spain has taken the lead on Covid-19 vaccines. Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP

More than 61 percent of Spain’s population of 47 million is fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates among large European Union nations – ahead of Italy’s 57.8 percent, 56 percent in France and 55.2 percent in Germany. The figure in the United States is 50.3 percent.

One of the cornerstones of Spain’s successful vaccine drive is trust in the health system, Josep Lobera, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, told AFP.

And that means there is little vaccine hesitancy. “We have an advantage with respect to other nations, because confidence in vaccines in general, especially childhood vaccines, is traditionally higher than in other European nations,” said Lobera, who sits on the government’s vaccine strategy committee.

A study by the Imperial College London published in June found that 79 percent of people in Spain trusted Covid-19 vaccines, compared to 62 percent in the US, 56 percent in France and 47 percent in Japan.

Spain has been spared the large protests seen in France and Italy against mandatory vaccines for health care workers, and the creation of a health pass giving them access to routine activities such as dining indoors.

The country did not need to make vaccination mandatory for teachers or other key workers, because “practically everyone gets vaccinated voluntarily”, Education Minister Pilar Alegría told news radio Cadena Ser on Monday.

People queue to receive their Covid-19 vaccine in Spain. Photo: LLUIS GENE / AFP

Take care of family

One recent morning, a long line of people, mainly in their 30s, waited in the scorching sun to get into a mass vaccination centre in Wizink sports arena in Madrid, which operates round-the-clock.

One of those waiting was Ines Gomez Calvo, a 28-year-old graphic designer. She trusted Spain’s public health system “100 percent, 200 percent”, she said.

Set up after Spain returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the country’s public health care system offers free universal coverage as a constitutionally guaranteed right. As a result, most Spaniards associate it with modernity, said Lobera.

Close family ties also explain the willingness to get vaccinated in Spain: 55 percent of peopled aged between 25 and 29 still live with their parents.

Alejandro Costales, a 30-year-old lawyer who was waiting to be vaccinated
at the Wizink centre, said this was a way “to care a bit” for his family. “It gives the guarantee that I can go home and not infect them,” he said.

Lobera said it was much harder for young people in Spain to become independent, as job precarity is high. “This means the family acts as a life preserver” during crises, he explained.

Polio trauma

Spain’s traumatic experience with the polio vaccine also helps explain why Spaniards are keen on immunisation.

While several nations began polio vaccination in the mid-1950s, the authorities under Franco waited nearly a decade longer. As a result, thousands of children were infected, causing serious physical disabilities and many deaths.

This negligence on the part of the dictatorship recently led Spain’s leftist government to recognise people who got polio before the immunisation began as victims of the regime.

“It was an absolute disaster,” said Javier García, president of the Cota Cero association representing polio victims.

The 60-year-old, who uses a wheelchair, underwent 17 operations on his legs as a child. He was four years old before he was able to stand up on his own and even then needed orthopaedic assistance.

He had no doubts, then, about getting vaccinated against Covid-19. “It is important that everyone gets it – and the sooner the better.”

READ ALSO: OPINION: ‘Not all parents in Spain are in favour of their children getting the Covid vaccine’

Member comments

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


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.