Spain’s Heroic Struggle to Turn the Tide

Faced with the second largest outbreak of Covid-19 in Europe, the Spanish government is starting to think creatively as to how they can adapt to new, difficult realities

Spain is struggling to handle what is currently the second largest outbreak of Covid-19 within Europe, after Italy. The country has reported 40,000 confirmed cases, 5,400 of which are healthcare workers. Roughly one-third of those infected are over the age of 65. 

Over the weekend, that number climbed by nearly 5,000 cases. 2,700 people have died. On average, there is one coronavirus death every 16 minutes. Like Italy, France, now the UK, and a multitude of countries around the globe, Spain is on lockdown.

The numbers are expected to rise across the board, and many cases are going uncounted due to an insufficient number of tests available. However, a new batch of kits means that medics will now be able to run them on anyone showing symptoms. “Now tests are not being carried out on the mild cases”, said Fernando Simón, the head of the country’s health emergency centre. “But we are organizing the logistics so that it can be done in the coming days…We are aware that early testing is essential to reduce the spread”.

Addressing a nearly empty parliament, President Pedro Sánchez warned that the virus had not yet peaked in Spain. “The worst is yet to come, as our health system feels the impact of caring for such a huge number of infected people, as the days of isolation drag on, when we feel the economic impact” Sanchez said of the pandemic. “I am asking you to make sacrifices but I’m also calling for unity…it is what we have to do to save many lives”. On Sunday, Sánchez announced that the quarantine would be extended another 15 days, to April 11. 

Madrid is the worst-hit area in the country, accounting for approximately 41 per cent of the total infections nationwide. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the President of the Region of Madrid, estimates that 80 per cent of the residents will catch the novel coronavirus, which will stress the region’s health services. Though many will have mild symptoms, the vulnerable 15 per cent of the population is likely to suffer greatly. 

“This virus has been in Spain for a longer time and is going to spread to practically everyone, and in most, it will not leave lasting marks. But the problem is the vulnerable population”, Ayuso said on a Spanish radio interview. 

To save time and resources, Madrid has sought to unify the public and private healthcare sectors to flip normal hospital beds into ICU beds. And in response to the avalanche of patients requiring medical care, the city’s Ifema convention centre has been converted into a temporary field hospital with more than 5,000 beds.

Balancing Safety or Freedom

“This virus will not defeat us. On the contrary. It will make us stronger as a society; a society that is more committed, more caring, more united. A society that’s standing up against any adversity”, said King Felipe VI in a televised speech last week, where he thanked health professionals for their work. “Now we have to resist, to endure”. It was the first speech he has given about the pandemic.

Though forbidden to congregate, some Spaniards have still found a way to protest – banging pots and pans together from their balconies, trying to prod former King of Spain Juan Carlos to donate 100 million euros he allegedly has stashed away in Swiss bank accounts to the Spanish health systems. The calls for protest were spread via social media and WhatsApp and were especially salient in parts of Madrid and Catalonia, where a persistently critical sentiment towards the monarchy exists.

Like Israel and France, Spain is struggling to balance the need for strict containment measures with safeguarding democratic freedoms in a state that only transitioned to democracy in the 1970s. The current situation is also exacerbating tensions between the central government and regional governments that resent Madrid’s interference in their affairs, especially in the Catalan and Basque regions. Meanwhile the fractured government has been forced by the coronavirus to go back on their word. A left-wing minority government came to power in part by promising to limit the authority of police over public gatherings; instead, police powers have been increased

Spain’s government – as well as Italy and France – has put the country under lockdown with the hope of minimizing the spread of the novel coronavirus that has so far claimed the lives of 1,720 Spanish citizens to date. Copyright by Kenneth Dedeu /

“Nobody Will Be Left Behind”

Starting today, Spain is closing all its hotels, putting an early end to the country’s tourist season. British Ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott, warned that “British tourists in Spain who wish to return home should make travel plans to do so as soon as possible”. Many Britons live and travel to Spain, and a relatively high expatriate population live there permanently. Approximately 100,000 tourists are still currently in Spain.

It is likely some of these hotels may be transitioned to temporary hospitals for the duration of the crisis, with the Ayre Gran Hotel Colon in Madrid slated to become the first “medicalised hotel” this week.

In a speech to parliament, Prime Minister Sanchez noted that the country’s GDP is going to take a hit this year due to the coronavirus. “We have never lived through anything like this. And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted”, Sanchez said. “It is clear that annual GDP will fall, as the European Commission has already pointed out. 2020 will not have 12 months, but 10 or even 9″. 

“If we manage to maintain employment levels and the production structure as long as the crisis lasts without major and irreparable damage, at the end of the crisis there would be a quick recovery, including a possible rebound effect that would accelerate activity”, he added. 

Spain has taken steps to limit the economy’s freefall, having recently announced a 200 billion euros aid package to assist companies and protect workers impacted by the mass closures needed to halt the spread of the virus. To do that, the government is allocating up to 100 billion euros for loan guarantees, and up to 200 billion euros through public funds to boost unemployment benefits and aid workers, which accounts for approximately 20 per cent of Spain’s total GDP. This aid package also includes state-backed guarantees for companies and loans for vulnerable individuals – a measure welcomed by European Central Bank vice president Luis de Guindos, who said it was “going in the right direction”.

“These are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures”, said Sanchez last week. It is an enormous and decisive effort which responds to the magnitude of the social and economic challenge which we are facing”.   

“We will spare no expense, nobody will be left behind“, he added. “The goal is to ensure a temporary crisis does not have a permanent negative impact on our labour market”. 

Spain’s leader also announced a moratorium on mortgage payments for anyone struggling financially due to the coronavirus outbreak, nor will anyone’s utilities be cut off due to non-payment for the duration of the crisis. The country is still struggling with the results of mass evictions that took place during the sovereign debt crisis ten years ago. 

The European Central Bank has also launched a 750 billion euros bond purchase scheme to help the entire eurozone get through the coming crisis. The prime minister said in a tweet that “These are times of responsibility, solidarity and unity of action from all the [European Union] institutions. The ECB has approved a €750 billion program to protect our citizens, our economies. We will do whatever it takes. We will make it”.

The New Medical Recruits

Despite the enormous efforts being made, Spain’s health system is overburdened unto collapse and likely to remain in dire straits for some time. Health authorities are taking physicians out of retirement and recruiting medical students in an effort to make up the difference.

Health Minister Salvador Illa announced the hiring of 30,000 health professionals – later raised to 50,000. That number includes doctors and nurses, but also post-graduate residents, final-year medical students, and recently retired physicians recruited back to work.

All private hospitals are now required to put their resources at the disposal of the national health system, and private enterprises that are able to make goods useful for combatting the virus, like masks, gloves, or anti-viral drugs, must report their holdings to the government as well.

Across Italy and Spain, citizens have united to applaud the hard-working healthcare workers on the front lines, with an outpouring of gratitude organised on social media.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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