Spain is the eurozone’s second hardest-hit country from the coronavirus pandemic with over 24,000 deaths, just behind Italy’s toll of over 27,000. The number of coronavirus-related deaths reached its lowest rate this past Sunday, with 288 deaths logged within a 24-hour period. If this downward trend continues, the country may finally be ready to gradually ease into the next phase of managing the pandemic.
On March 14, Spain instituted one of the strictest states of emergency in the eurozone. Citizens have since been unable to leave their homes except to purchase food, go to the pharmacy, walk pets, or work, if doing so from home is not possible. Rule breakers face steep fines if they do not comply with quarantine measures; meanwhile, children – until recently – had not been allowed out of the house at all.
No Rapid Tests, Depressed Numbers
Spaniards have taken umbrage at official government tallies, which do not account for those who succumbed to the virus but were never tested. Fernando Simon, the national coronavirus emergency response chief, has acknowledged that the “real number of deaths is hard to know”. But the government has defended their numbers arguing that it is only by counting confirmed cases from those who were tested for the virus that they are able to study the outbreak’s evolution – as per the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) practices. A Reuters calculation estimates total fatalities in Spain are up to 49 per cent higher than the current official count.
Complicating matters is a batch of faulty testing kits Spain received from Chinese company Bioeasy, which itself was a replacement for a different set of flawed tests. In response, the country is demanding a refund for the entire order of 640,000 tests after both batches proved unable to consistently detect the virus.
Failure to provide accurate rapid testing during a critical stage of the outbreak proved harmful to Spain’s ability to track and contain the virus. Rapid testing was abandoned, with the government now moving to use one that searches for antibodies in those who have recovered from Covid-19, as well as a more expensive test that looks for the virus in people’s DNA.
The Netherlands, Turkey, India, the UK, and Ireland have also reported issues with Chinese equipment, which became a booming industry for the Asian country during the pandemic. The Chinese embassy in Spain has attempted to distance itself from Bioeasy, tweeting that the company had not been given a license from China’s National Medical Products Administration to sell its products, nor was it on the list of manufacturers that the Chinese Ministry of Commerce had given to Spain. China has since opened an investigation into Bioeasy, and has cracked down on exports of medical equipment, stating that any company distributing coronavirus tests must obtain a registration certificate from the National Medical Products Administration. They have also donated 30 million dollars to the WHO, in addition to 20 million donated earlier on in March.
Who Let the Kids Out?
Children are now allowed out for the first time in six weeks after the government lifted restrictions on anyone below the age of fourteen this past Sunday. Streets and parks quickly filled with children and their parents on scooters and bikes taking advantage of the spring weather, especially as many families in Spain’s major cities live in apartments without any sort of yard or outdoor access.
Growing pressure from both political leaders and stressed parents – the latter banging pots and pans in protest from their balconies – combined with falling new infection and fatality rates, pushed the government to give families a new lease on life. Children can leave the house for one hour each day, so long as they’re accompanied by an adult from the same household and stay within a single kilometre radius from their residence. Parents and psychologists have welcomed the change, remarking that sixty minutes can make all the difference.
“The escalation of anxiety, tantrums, irascible behaviour…have been in crescendo“, noted Dr Iban Onandia, a neuropsychologist in the Basque province of Bizkaia.
“The change of routine, being outside and being in the sunlight – all of that is extremely important”, says Laura Piñeiro, a psychologist and the director in Madrid of the charity Asociación Bienestar Desarollo (ABD). “There are people living in 40sq m (430sq ft), who don’t have sufficient ventilation or light. If you’re living in a limited space, when you go out in the sunshine that generates a feeling of well-being.”
The rule-change does not apply to teenagers, however. While they are permitted to run errands for the household, just like adults, parents have mostly been reluctant to let their older children run the risk of contagion in supermarkets and other enclosed areas. And while many teens have access to and use technology to maintain a social life, it is no replacement for face-to-face contact.
Four-Part Exit Plan
Spain has announced a four-part exit strategy, with each region relaxing restrictions at a different pace depending on the state of the outbreak in their area. Each phase is expected to last two weeks, with the entire process lasting no more than eight. President Pedro Sanchez hopes to have the country open by June. Workers in manufacturing and construction were allowed to return to work on April 13, an early step taken in re-opening the economy.
“By the end of June, we as a country will have entered into the new normality if the epidemic remains under control”, Sanchez said. “We are starting to glimpse an outcome that will be a reward for the huge collective effort made over the past weeks.” The president has warned, however, that “the virus is still lurking”.
“It’s up to the people now, we are embarking on a journey without a precise route map. […] What we’ve accomplished is enormous, but it could all be lost if we don’t look after each other.”
An initial preparatory “phase zero” is due to kick in early May, which will allow hairdressers and other businesses to re-open via appointment, restaurants to offer take-away and delivery services, and sports leagues to resume training. Remote work is set to continue until the final fourth phase in June.
Spain’s economy has taken a massive hit due to the weeks-long lockdown, necessary to limit the spread of the virus. Tourism, a sector that accounts for 12 per cent of Spain’s GDP, has all but shut down. Automotive industries have reported that car production in March fell an astounding 45 per cent.
The Bank of Spain is predicting that unemployment could rise to 21.7 per cent. Bankinter, Spain’s fourth-largest bank and the first to report quarterly earnings, said it had almost doubled provisions to reflect the worsening economic impact from the outbreak, which made its first quarter net profit shrink by 10 per cent.
Sanchez announced on Tuesday that a recession of “extraordinary scale” is looming and requires an unprecedented response from Brussels. The EU’s International Monetary Fund recently projected an 8 per cent drop in the country’s GDP.
“We are going to a very hard recession worldwide. Europe is the most affected area in the world, and Spain is one of the most affected countries”, affirmed Jose Carlos Diez, an economist at the University of Alcala. EU leaders are still debating different strategies to kick-start their economies, including a Spanish proposal for a 1.5 trillion euro recovery fund, which would involve giving grants to help countries recover – not loans, like most other proposed plans. While Southern European states support a common debt instrument, sometimes dubbed “coronabonds” or eurobonds, several of the wealthier northern nations, including Germany, remain opposed.
“Europe needs more fiscal firepower and we need it now. Every day thousands of companies are filing for bankruptcy. We need this proposal to fly”, said Ana Botin, chairman of Spain’s largest bank, Santander, on Twitter.
However, Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González has warned fellow EU members that forcing countries like Spain and her neighbours to take on even more debt to tackle the impact of the coronavirus will only deepen the region’s economic damage and harm overall eurozone solidarity – especially if this is a seen as a method to re-litigate the fallout of the sovereign debt crisis from a decade ago.
“The recovery fund should not be about increasing levels of public debt. That would only exacerbate the impact of the crisis”, González said in the telephone interview with Politico. “That is why we are saying that the fund should consider transfers, grants to members, which we think make more sense in the specific circumstances of 2020.”
Spain in particular has earned the right to be trusted by its fellow nations in the EU when it comes to economic policy, considering the strides made since the sovereign debt crisis. “It is not as if Spain has not been doing its homework, it is not as if Spain has not been responsible in the past. We’ve been reducing our public debt, we’ve been reducing our deficit, we’ve been reforming our retirement age”, González said. “So it’s not about asking anybody to shoulder our debt, it’s about making a common investment into keeping the European market functioning.”