Stupefaction reigns supreme in the Spanish state in the face of the unstoppable advance of the coronavirus pandemic. Fernando Simón, the face of the Spanish fight against the coronavirus, surely did not, a week ago, expect the question posed by Spanish radio network COPE: "How can you explain that Germany, with 15,000 positive cases, has 44 dead, while Spain, with 18,000, exceeds 800?" The answer of the spokesperson for the Spanish health ministry could not have been more eloquent: "I cannot". On January 31st, Simon himself said he was convinced Spain would not have "more than a few diagnosed cases" and that, if local transmission were to happen, it would be "very limited and very controlled".
Reality has struck since then: Spain finds itself in a state of alarm, which has now been extended by two more weeks. The tragedy grows amidst the political leaders’ improvisation. When the alarm was declared, there were 7,753 positive cases and 288 deaths. Two weeks later, positives have multiplied by nine (72,000) and deaths by nineteen (5,600). The chain of errors, oversights and negligence that has accompanied the evolution of the curve has made the drama even grimmer. Just this week Spain exceeded the number of deaths in China, the source of the pandemic.
The opposition's most frequently heard criticism is that, in this unprecedented health crisis, the Spanish government reacted badly and late. But the mistakes have persisted afterwards too. Another dark week ends for Spain, overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. The Spanish government gives three daily press conferences, so there is not a communication problem, but rather a political one. All eyes are on Salvador Illa, Spain’s health minister, who did not even have any experience in the field.
The feeling in Madrid is that everything has been improvised, starting with the very state of alarm decree, which the Spanish government was reluctant to implement until it had no other option. The fact it would need to be extended beyond the prescribed fifteen days was already taken for granted. That it would have to be modified to make it stricter, however, wasn’t.
There have been changes in what sectors are allowed to remain open, long distance mobility has had to be restricted even further... And finally, on Saturday a total lockdown of the country had to be decreed (which surprised even some of the government’s own political associates, who had not been previously informed about it).
All activity except essential services has stopped, as Catalan president Quim Torra and other regional presidents requested weeks ago, only to find their suggestions point blank rejected. And yet, for days, the central government insisted that these were already "the most drastic measures in Europe and the world".
Hospitals, on the edge and unprotected
Partly because of years of public healthcare cuts and partly because of the unstoppable advance of the pandemic, public healthcare has reached its limit, nearing collapse. So much so that, especially in Madrid and Catalonia, improvised field hospitals (such as at the IFEMA trade fair facilities in Madrid) and new beds in Intensive Care Units had to be created, while hurriedly buying respirators. Before this crisis, Spain had a total of 4,600 ICU beds. Today there are already 4,165 patients in ICUs because of coronavirus. Hospitals are overwhelmed, as are healthcare professionals, who do not have the necessary equipment. On Friday, 9,444 healthcare professionals were already infected, almost 15% of the total number of cases registered in the State. The necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) is still not arriving.
The tragedy of the rest homes
Until the military set foot in Spanish senior citizens' residences this week, the extent of the tragedy was unknown: the Army found dead bodies abandoned in their beds. Initially there were only a few cases, but now there are hundreds or even thousands. Just in the residences of the Community of Madrid 1,065 elderly people have died this month (760 in the centres themselves and 305 in hospitals). They are the most vulnerable age group. Once the tragedy was uncovered, days into the crisis, the armed forces have been moving swiftly into the homes, the vast majority of which are private.
640,000 defective tests
Last Saturday, Pedro Sánchez boasted about the purchase of 640,000 quick coronavirus tests, which would soon reach a million. "These are reliable and approved tests, with all the health guarantees", he said. A week later, the ministry of health had to return 640,000 tests to China — 58,000 of which had already arrived —, which it had purchased through a Spanish supplier. The reason: they were defective. Their sensitivity was so low that it was impossible to detect whether a person was infected. The Spanish government clarifies that the Chinese manufacturer, Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology, has assumed the return and will send tests that meet the requirements. The added problem is that the company in question does not even yet have an official license from the Chinese National Medical Products Administration, according to the Chinese embassy in Spain. Meanwhile, Spain is without the quick tests it has needed for days.
The regional and local governments have been ahead of the central government in their reaction to this crisis. This is confirmed by the early decision to confine their populations taken by the governments of Catalonia and Madrid. Nevertheless, referring to the need for "efficiency", the Sánchez executive decided to exercise its authority in the state of alarm decree and to centralise powers in areas such as healthcare, which had been totally devolved to the autonomous regions until then. It centralised the purchase of supplies, even though the regional ministries already had the technical skills and experience to deal with these markets. The result has been inefficiency, the exact opposite of what was expected. The clearest example is that of the test kits, but also surgical masks. Regional governments of all colours have suffered the consequences: for example, shortages of medical supplies. Even the most centralist leaders have ended up opening their eyes and rebelling against centralisation.
Emergency plan with holes in it
The fight against the coronavirus has serious economic consequences, especially in terms of job losses. That is why the Government made much of its implementation of a 200 billion euro economic and social contingency plan to deal with such consequences. The implememtation of the plan had been delayed due to strong internal disagreements in the Council of Ministers. In the business and productive sectors, however, the government has forgotten the small enterprises and producers: it has neither frozen the Social Security contributions paid by the self-employed, nor has it exempted SMEs from paying taxes. Furthermore, it was not until this Friday that layoffs "taking advantage" of the coronavirus were prohibited. In the social sphere, the Spanish government also showed great enthusiasm with the moratorium on mortgage payments for the most vulnerable and affected sectors (with draconian conditions). Once again, the most important group was forgotten: tenants. Currently, around two thirds of evictions in Spain affect people living in rented housing. The coalition government is still “considering” alternatives.
Militarisation of the crisis
In Spain, instead of health workers or scientists, the military are the most visible in the management of the crisis. Not only the National Police and the Guardia Civil, but also the Spanish Army, which has already been deployed throughout all the autonomous communities. Every day, in the press room in La Moncloa there are three uniformed personnel and only one doctor. From there, the Chief of Defence Staff (JEMAD), the Catalan Miguel Ángel Villaroya, has imposed a warmongering rhetoric, which he uses in between his military and monarchist harangues. “We are all soldiers in this war” said the general, addressing 47 million Spaniards. On the ground, the Emergency Military Unit (EMU), which is the most active unit, is underfunded. Its allocation is €31 million of the €10.2 billion in defence spending.
Illa, in the line of fire
The highest authority in the management of the coronavirus crisis is health portfolio holder Salvador Illa. The pandemic has caught the minister unprepared. He was formerly the organisational secretary of the Catalan Socialists (PSC) and a key player, with ERC, in the negotiations for the government's investiture. He was given this portfolio so he could sit on the Spanish cabinet and, therefore, would be able to participate in the bilateral dialogue with the Generalitat. As powers in the healthcare sector had been devolved to all the communities, he was not expected to have many headaches. But the coronavirus arrived, and the minister was bereft of any experience in dealing with such matters. "I try to be a decent minister, but I'm not a medical doctor, this has been known since day one," Illa admitted this Thursday to the health committee of the Congress of Deputies. But the health crisis requires doctors.