After months of lockdown, first initiated on March 14, Spain is now easing forward as half the country entered Phase 1 earlier this week. The change in quarantine status came as Spain reported the lowest number of coronavirus fatalities since March. On Thursday the country had logged 27,321 fatalities from the virus, making it the second-worst hit country in Europe. Only Italy has a higher death toll, with 31,106 dead from the disease.
Each region of Spain is set to exit lockdown on its own timeline, reflecting the disjointed manner in which parts of the country experienced the coronavirus outbreak. Each phase will last at least two weeks, until an assessment determines whether it is safe to progress to the next step. Phase 1 allows for gatherings of up to ten people and travel within provinces only. Public transportation restarted operations on May 4 under strict social distancing rules, and face masks are mandatory. Athletes can now train outdoors. Additionally, Spain’s Canary and Balearic Islands can re-open bars, restaurants, museums, gyms, and hotels at reduced capacity – a privilege not allowed anywhere else.
During a news conference announcing the easements, Health Minister Salvador Illa said, “During this transition to the new normality, social discipline is more necessary than ever: maintaining interpersonal distance, washing hands and maintaining hygiene in private and public spaces, and heeding the instructions of health authorities.”
The regions that are exiting Phase 0 to Phase 1 account for 40 per cent of Spain’s total number of small businesses, according to the National Federation of Autonomous Workers. Approximately 20 per cent of the hospitality industry has reopened. Church services in these regions have also resumed, albeit with limited seating in chairs, not pews, to enforce the mandatory two metre distance between worshippers.
Madrid and Barcelona, two of the hardest hit regions in Spain, remain at Phase 0 for now. Spain’s emergency health chief Fernando Simon has said the two cities have yet to meet government requirements that would allow for any easing. “I want to insist that this is not a race, decisions must be based on cooperation and caution,” Illa said. This has caused significant unease among residents and business owners as expenses and losses pile up.
Illa noted in a statement that “The government acknowledges Madrid’s healthcare capacity, but it is opting to wait until its primary care detection system is more robust before transitioning to another phase.” Though the nation’s capital has the required hospital capacity a move into Phase 1 demands – including an emergency field hospital that is empty but not yet dismantled – it has not yet met the infrastructure or human resources requirements laid out in Spain’s de-escalation plan.
Despite remaining in Phase 0, Barcelona’s beaches are now open for four hours on Friday mornings, allowing residents to take a dip – something forbidden under the past weeks of lockdown. “This is freedom,” said a local swimmer, Marta Torrents, to Reuters. “To be able to go out to sea and swim – for me, this is perfect.” Simon noted that this measure is important to keep up the health of residents. “Going outside and improving our quality of life is perfectly compatible with continuing the safety measures.”
But Spain’s army predicts the country will be hit by two more waves of the disease before the pandemic is deemed over in a 12 to 18 months, when a vaccine is developed and made widely available. The army has been hugely important in combating the spread of Covid-19, mobilising military medics and emergency field hospitals. The army has recommended the use of contact-tracing mobile phone applications to get ahead of future outbreaks, a step that the Spanish government has not yet taken.
Balancing Caution and Risk
The pressure to re-open Spain quickly is immense. “Businesses and workers are the first to want companies to function normally,” said Hilario Alfaro, president of Madrid’s Business Forum. “But we need to first resolve the health crisis, then resolve the economic crisis, and above all avoid reaching a social crisis.” Even in regions allowed to progress to Phase 1, uncertainty remains high and many businesses are unsure if they will be able to recoup their losses. Parts of the country stuck in Phase 0 are facing increasing economic frustration.
Madrid region president Isabel Diaz Ayuso, unhappy that Madrid is not yet permitted to exit Phase 0, has argued that the capital urgently needs to reopen for business. “We’re talking about an economic situation so serious that it could turn into a social problem,” Diaz Ayuso told Spanish television. The region will again apply to move forward to Phase 1 on May 18.
“We have a more intense social life than in other European countries and sometimes it’s difficult to comply with social-distancing rules, but we must keep it up a while longer,” Simon acknowledged in a news briefing. “It won’t be for long, but if we don’t maintain the measures now perhaps it will take longer than we want.”
“We’ve managed to retake 99 per cent of the ground lost to the virus,” said President Pedro Sanchez in a televised address this past Saturday. “I ask you to show the greatest precaution and prudence [because] the virus has not gone away, it is still there.”
American Airlines has resumed running flights to Spain, an optimistic sign that the country may be able to rescue some of its summer tourism season. Tourism accounts for nearly one-fifth of overall GDP. In theory, some hotels are allowed to re-open this month, but many are not equipped to do so under the strict safety guidelines the government mandates. However, the industry hopes to get things in order to make it to the summer season – assuming tourists are willing to tolerate a mandatory 14-day quarantine once they arrive.
Even sectors that have restarted operations are experiencing a rocky return to normality. Nissan’s main car factory plant re-opened for business this week but was soon shut down due to worker’s strikes. Labour unions across Europe have expressed concern that worker rights are at risk, as is worker safety as the pandemic drags on. The strike at Nissan is also about protecting workers’ jobs in an especially precarious post-pandemic economy, as the world barrels into the worst recession seen in a century that will likely push companies to close factories. Automakers are especially vulnerable as demand has consistently decreased over the past five years, well before the pandemic wiped out the savings of millions.
Anna Ginès, the director of the Institute for Labor Studies at Esade, a Spanish university, said that such labour conflict is likely to become more prevalent, making the strike at Nissan “an example of things to come”. This is especially true if companies decide to make temporary furloughs and salary reductions into permanent cuts “even before they are able to see exactly the coronavirus impact on their business”. Currently, the Nissan plant is operating at 25 per cent capacity.
“Nissan, like its competitors, is studying the situation with very little visibility on how the European demand for cars will evolve,” said Nissan Europe President Gianluca De Ficchy. However some fear that the coronavirus pandemic will provide the company the justification it needs to close its plants in both Barcelona and Sunderland in the UK, as part of a larger restructuring that would see Nissan exiting Europe altogether to concentrate on Japan, China, and the USA’s markets.
“Nissan tends to take advantage of world crises to mask its problems in Spain,” said an anonymous industry analyst. “Nissan Europe already took advantage of the great financial crisis of 2008, on the same day the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers bank became known, to communicate to the workers of the Barcelona plant that it was in danger.”
It remains to be seen if the strike will be successful in guaranteeing that workers’ jobs won’t be cut. Nissan is a Japanese company, which means they are likely to be more responsive to movement in Tokyo than strikes in a foreign country. On top of that, labour unions in Spain have been gradually losing membership, which took an even harder hit in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
The coronavirus crisis has served to exacerbate Spain’s deep political divides rather than paper over them. When President Sanchez extended the state of emergency first declared on March 14, the move cost him support from opposition parties, that have accused him of abusing the powers granted in such emergencies. Sanchez was forced to strike last-minute deals with the centre-right Citizens party and Basque parties in order to ensure he received the parliamentary endorsement needed to extend the state of emergency until May 24. The president argues the move was necessary to manage the complex plan of lockdown easements.
Pablo Casado of the conservative People’s Party, who had until then supported the government, chose to abstain from the vote and condemn what he saw as Sanchez’s violation of citizens’ constitutional rights by continuing to restrict free movement, saying that the PP would not tolerate the minority government’s “immoral” attempts to “hold Spaniards hostage”. The pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party does not support the extension either. Meanwhile, some separatists have sought to capitalise on the pandemic and suggested that an independent Catalonia would have seen fewer Covid-19 deaths. Unlike the USA, Spain has not experienced protests fighting against the lockdown, though the strain of seven weeks of quarantine is eroding public support – and patience – for the measures.
In April, Casado told Sanchez “You don’t deserve the support of the opposition. Your arrogance, your lies and your ineffectiveness are an explosive combination for Spain.”
“Maintaining the state of emergency won’t save lives or jobs. What will save lives is a change of government,” said Vox leader Santiago Abascal, adding that he will consider leading a no-confidence vote soon. Vox is a far-right, eurosceptic party, and holds the third largest number of seats in Parliament.
While Sanchez narrowly managed to avoid a true crisis, the situation does not bode well for his government’s fragile coalition. The president was forced to call early elections last year after Catalan parties withdrew and attempted to scuttle attempts to pass a national budget. An inconclusive election result in April 2019 led to another election in November, but the coalition made up of the Socialist party and the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos party only took power in January – right as the novel coronavirus made its debut in Southern Europe.