Coronavirus

Spain speaks: voices from inside the lockdown

BY Abi Malins | tweet @AbiMalins   /  31 March 2020

In the Coronavirus crisis, Spain is the second worst affected country in Europe, behind Italy. On Monday, the country registered 7340 deaths due to COVID-19, and 812 people tragically lost their lives in the preceding 24 hours. As fatalities rise and the national lockdown continues, Spaniards are expressing frustration with the government and the emerging economic consequences of the crisis. But people are still finding ways to pull together, despite stringent social distancing measures.

As the Spanish authorities scramble to contain the continual spread of the virus, the pandemic is taking its toll on lives and livelihoods across the country. It was the country’s health workers themselves that had to shatter “the delusion that this was no more than normal flu… that nothing was wrong,” says Laura López, an occupational therapist in a Barcelona hospital. “The government didn’t really tell the truth at any point, because they weren’t concerned about the severity of the situation as it was [just affecting] elderly people… they didn’t think they’d lose control of the situation in Madrid.”

Drastic measures have since been adopted in Spain’s capital. It’s the area worst affected by the outbreak, with highs of up to 345 deaths registered in a single day. The city’s IFEMA event centre is being transformed into a hastily assembled field hospital intended to provide up to 5500 beds. Health Minister Salvador Illa has also announced a new €432 million contract to purchase sanitary equipment from China, including 5.5 million tests due to arrive by April.

But, these grand gestures don’t provide an immediate solution to the glaring issue on the ground: health workers are devastatingly undersupplied. “We don’t have gowns, we have bin bags to put on as protective suits over our uniforms,” Laura tells me. “They give us disposable surgical masks once a week and that has to last us… it’s asking [for us] to get infected.”

Tension over lack of supplies is worsened by a lack of leadership, it seems. “The lies and dishonesty the government is feeding us are weakening morale,” says Inma Vallejo, joint owner of tapas bar La Chimenea in La Línea de la Concepción.

Unfortunately, this distrust has – to some extent – been generated precisely where the country most craves clarity: its Health Ministry. The promised roll-out of rapid testing kits has been delayed as the Ministry’s first instalment has proved defective. The first batch of tests, purchased from Chinese firm Bioeasy via a Spanish provider, showed uselessly low sensitivity levels (just 30%, rather than the plus-80% required), producing frequent false negatives.

Compounding the crisis, Spain’s healthcare system is facing threats on multiple fronts. Authorities have reported various cyber attacks on hospital systems, as criminals take advantage of the COVID-19 mayhem in an attempt to harvest information.

In general, there’s a “feeling of indignation” at central government’s failure to act decisively in the face of the pandemic, Inma tells me. “The government hasn’t acted with haste or organisation… it’s prioritised political standing over the good of the nation,” she says.

The outbreak has become a political football lobbed between Spain’s major parties. The governing PSOE/Podemos coalition is at minimal function to limit interpersonal contact, but the main opposition Partido Popular is insisting on establishing a cross-party monitoring committee to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as it evolves.

The coalition has agreed to consider the proposal, despite Podemos’ public acknowledgement that “the risk of a PP-led committee is that is isn’t used to combat the epidemic… but as an investigative committee to attack the government and score political points at the worst of times.” Simultaneously, the coalition’s Economy Minister Nadia Calviño is pushing to keep the economy running as far as possible, while the opposition Partido Popular is insisting on total shutdown (excluding essential industry).

Political posturing is marring the relationship between Spain’s regional and central governments, too. Fernando López Miras, President of the Region of Murcia and Partido Popular himself, recently called for total shutdown, but was denied authority to act by central government.

Among my sources, though, the general impression is that regional governments are taking the crisis more effectively in hand. “In reality,” Inma tells me from Andalucía, “it’s the Autonomous Communities that, despite not having sufficient funds, are managing to acquire and hand out sanitary and protective materials.”

Unsurprisingly, the fragility of livelihoods is another major concern. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused global market crashes, precipitating a recession predicted to be as harsh as the credit crunch of 2008. “[Spaniards] don’t have as much money saved up any more, because they’ve been using it up over the last few years of crisis,” says Alejandro Robles, a draughtsman based in Murcia. “There have been and there will be more economic losses if the government doesn’t make intelligent decisions, if it doesn’t look out for small and medium employers… and provide them with some aid to keep going.”

Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz recently announced measures intended to do just that, including a veto on companies’ dismissal of employees based on “force majeure, for economic, technical, organisational and production reasons that allege Coronavirus” while the crisis persists. The government has also relaxed eligibility requirements for ERTEs (temporary employment suspension plans), under which employees receive a percentage of their salary as unemployment benefits.

But, these measures seem somewhat perfunctory given the sheer scale of the pandemic’s effect: over 1.5 million workers have applied for ERTEs, with unions indicating March alone will see 1 million newly unemployed.

For the tourism and hospitality sectors, the outlook is particularly bleak. “Compulsory closure… will definitely cause bankruptcies,” Inma tells me. “It’s been disastrous for us… luckily [our] premises are already paid for and we’re managing costs, but this is going to ruin many families.” 

For Alejandro, the government’s approach is simply too little, too late: “let’s see if, this time, politicians take note and change their policies; if not, we’ll carry on being stupid enough to hit the same stumbling block again and again.”

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging Spanish society, leaving turmoil in its wake that’s difficult for many to comprehend. “Right now, there’s a lot of uncertainty, despite the constant bombardment of information,” says Irene Blanco, a Murcia-based GP. It’s a situation with which many of us will identify; an increasing distance, as Laura puts it, between “those that don’t want to acknowledge reality and… those facing up to a harsh reality that’s very tough.”

The nationwide lockdown – which Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has now extended to the 12th of April – is proving difficult for some. “There are more restrictions all the time because part of the population still doesn’t seem to be using its common sense too well,” Irene tells me.

In line with the Law on Public Safety and the General Law on Public Health, fines ranging from €100 to €600,000 are now applicable for failure to comply with instructions from the authorities. Over 81,000 have been issued since lockdown started, including a Castile and León police official fined by his own colleagues for going on a jog and – surreally – a lockdown-infringing Madrid cyclist who was chased down by mounted police.

But, Inma assures me, key messages are getting through: “there’s a real sense of responsibility and that the only chance we have of getting out of this is strictly following isolation guidelines.” Asked how that’s affecting daily life in Spain, Irene evocatively captures the ghost town image now familiar for many. “Life in Spain? What life?… we’re used to seeing children in the parks, squares full of people enjoying meals out, and now everything’s shut, empty streets… silence reigns.”

But, there are some positives to be taken from these difficult circumstances. Spain’s national infection rate does appear to be slowing, dropping from 20% to 8.12% over the last five days (testing capacity limitations, however, will affect the accuracy of these statistics).

The public is pulling together in this time of need, too. “In general, there’s still solidarity, and there are even people offering themselves up on social media to go out shopping for elderly people who are finding it difficult” Irene says. Inma’s seen the same in her neighbourhood, where “there are lots of gestures of solidarity, especially with [the] elderly… they ring their neighbours who’ll bring them their shopping.”

Kind gestures are returned, too, however they can be. “I gave two of my neighbours sanitising gels and the next day I found a 3-kilo bag of oranges and tomatoes on my doorstep,” Irene says. That sentiment’s showing collectively, too. Irene tells me “people all over the country go to the balconies or windows of their houses every evening at 8pm to applaud… it’s a moving gesture” that recognises, as Inma explains, “the all-important work that the army, state security forces, health workers, supermarket employees… are doing… they’re our everyman heroes.”

Spain will feel the effects of this unprecedented hardship for months to come. As both the death toll and unemployment levels eventually reach a humbling plateau, frustrations with national government’s response to the pandemic are unlikely to wane. But from speaking to Spaniards across the country, there’s a still more pressing thought at the front of people’s minds: it’s their inherent sense of community that’s going to get them through this.

Abi Malins is a freelance writer and translator. She also provides volunteer services to Spanish-speaking migrants at Casa Migrante, Amsterdam.


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