In reaction to the surge of Coronavirus cases in late February and March, Spain implemented some of the world’s toughest containment measures. With the country practically shut down and children having been banned from going outside for six weeks, there are signs the epidemic is now in decline, however.
Spain’s first coronavirus case was confirmed at the end of January, when a German tourist tested positive for COVID-19. La Gomera, where he was treated, was thought to be the only part of Spain affected at the time.
As the numbers rose and coronavirus began to take hold across the country, the official line was still that the virus was imported. This continued until the 26th February, when a resident of Seville who had not left the town recently tested positive. It would only be a week until the country’s first coronavirus death, when a man in the Valencia region died of the disease. This was the first of many, with the count standing currently at 27000 dead. Spain has now seemingly flattened the curve of infections and has been overtaken by other countries, but still stands 4th in the total number of deaths.
The Spanish authorities’ initial reaction to the crisis has exhibited similar characteristics to that of many major European nations. The underestimation of the threat, combined with the narrative of coronavirus as an ‘external’ menace, meant Spain was slow to react.
Spain eventually declared a state of emergency on 14 March and imposed a nationwide lockdown which came into force on 16 March. The government, despite this relatively swift response, have been criticised in the media for not banning mass gatherings in time. There has also been vocal criticism of the failure to procure additional medical equipment, especially as the numbers in neighbouring Italy rose and the threat moved closer and closer.
Italy, Britain and France, in fact, did not impose lockdown conditions until they were quite a way past the figure of infections that Spain had when measures came into force. In many countries though gatherings of any size were already banned. Madrid was not alone in allowing huge crowds to gather for International Women’s Day though, and on March 8, 120,000 gathered in Madrid to celebrate.
Although it is nearly impossible to map the spread of the virus exactly, many scientists believe it to have been a major factor in spreading the infection across the capital. To add weight to these claims, it is now known that the three Spanish government ministers who led the rally later would later test positive for Covid-19.
It is also argued that the fractured and complicated nature of Spain’s political system made organising a joined-up response difficult. Spain’s 17 regions have quite a lot of autonomy from central government, and some regions are trying to actually break away and gain independence. Add to this the fact that Spain is currently ruled by a new and unestablished coalition government, the first in Spain’s history, and a picture begins to emerge as to why Spain was not quite as prepared as might have been expected.
PPE and Vital Equipment
It seems that one area where Spain has really struggled has been the procurement of emergency equipment. Not only are there severe shortages, but a few high profile cases have highlighted a lack of due care and experience. For example, 640,000 test kits were ordered from a Chinese company, only to later be found out to be unusable.
A failure to stockpile basic equipment such as surgical masks, face masks, face shields, temperature scanners, and medical gloves left meant some doctors and nurses resorted to the use of garbage bags in place of medical gowns. Supplies of more specialised equipment such as N95 masks and KN95 masks were said to be next to non-existent, although some regions did have FFP2 masks.
With governments measuring the impact of the virus differently and using differing metrics, it has been difficult to get a firm grip on where each country lays relative to others. With no accepted standard for what constitutes coronavirus symptoms and who to include in the figures of infected and dead, numbers are patchy. This is exacerbated by the fact most countries have managed to complete only minimal testing for the virus.
However, even with countries worldwide struggling to keep up with testing, Spain’s performance has been especially questionable. German data company Statista considered Spain’s testing data to be too inconsistent and unreliable to include in their Coronavirus statistics. Spain’s testing program has lagged behind nearly every other country in Europe, including much poorer countries such as Greece.
It appears Spain has ridden out the worst of the crisis and the government has now announced a four-phase plan to end the current restrictions on movement. But despite Spain now seeming to be near the end of at least the first wave of coronavirus infections, there is fevered debate in the country surrounding the government’s handling of the crisis.
It appears that a combination of a slow initial response followed by a fractured national response and message contributed to the early initial spread of the virus. This was then compounded by a lack of vital equipment and an inability to effectively manage the procurement of PPE and essential medical supplies, leaving Spain with the highest number of deaths amongst health staff and other key workers.
Spain’s experience highlights the importance of having a coherent and coordinated response, and highlights how deadly a lack of forward planning and preparedness can be when a pandemic hits.