Coronavirus: Spain’s failed response to the pandemic

Mostafa Allam in Spain, Thursday 16 Apr 2020

Spain is second only to the US in the seriousness of its coronavirus pandemic despite a nationwide lockdown starting in mid-March

Spain’s failed response to the pandemic
Health workers paying a tribute for their co-worker Esteban, a male nurse that died of the coronavirus disease, in Leganes, Spain (photo: Reuters)

Spain is now the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic outside the United States, with its coronavirus death toll surpassing that of China on 25 March and its number of active cases surpassing that of Italy approximately one week later.

The country now has the second-highest number of active cases in the world, second only to the US. “This is the biggest crisis of our lives,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a recent national address in what is proving to be the darkest moment in Spain’s recent history.  

Spain saw the coronavirus crisis coming. The pandemic had been unfolding in China, South Korea, Iran and neighbouring Italy months before it arrived on Spain’s shores. This has raised many questions as to why Spain failed so strikingly in its response to the virus.

There had been much coverage of attempts to contain the coronavirus, ranging from success stories in Singapore and South Korea to major failures in Italy, but Spain failed to respond despite the clear warning signs for several reasons.

The country’s biggest mistake was that it did too little and acted too late. While countries around the world were setting up travel restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Spain remained open to visitors until 10 March when it implemented the first travel restrictions on direct flights from Italy.

By 13 March, coronavirus cases had been registered in all 50 provinces of Spain, and the virus was spreading at an unprecedented rate across the country.  

Among the reasons Spain was reluctant to close its borders earlier were tourism and business. Spain has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in recent years and was the second-most visited country in the world in 2019. Commerce with the rest of the world, and especially with EU partners such as Italy, is vital for Spain’s globally interconnected economy.

 “Spain will only have a handful of cases,” Fernando Simon, head of medical emergencies in Madrid, assured the Spanish public on 9 February. Just months later on 2 April, Spain reported that 950 people had died of the virus in a 24-hour period, the highest death toll reported by a single country at the time.

Another major reason why Spain failed so miserably to respond to the coronavirus was a total lack of preparedness. Between 31 January, when Spain recorded its first confirmed case, and 14 March, when it implemented the nationwide lockdown, the number of cases in Spain had soared to 10,000.

 “What makes me most angry is that we had a month and a half to get ready after our first case, and we had weeks to prepare after watching what [was happening] in Italy,” said Angela Hernandez Puente, an official at a health labour union in Madrid.

As a result of the country’s lack of preparedness, Spain lacked essential equipment, such as testing kits, ventilators, and protective clothing for medical staff. Approximately 15 per cent of cases in Spain have been among healthcare workers who did not have adequate protective gear when treating coronavirus patients. 

Countries that succeeded in containing the virus early, like Singapore and South Korea, were prepared with the necessary equipment to test widely. But Spain did not have sufficient test kits, and the government scrambled to order 340,000 from Shenzhen Bioeasy, a Chinese biotechnology company.

But the kits had not been approved by China’s National Medical Products Administration, and they ended up having a less than a 30 per cent accuracy rate. Many coronavirus cases that tested negative with the kits were actually positive. 

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s healthcare system had been the victim of austerity measures over the past decade since the financial crisis that started in 2008. Today, Spain has only a third of the beds per capita that are available in Germany, and its hospitals lack the beds and essential equipment needed to handle a nationwide health crisis.

Spanish policymakers also did not take a holistic approach to containing the coronavirus pandemic and ended up in a fire-fighting situation. More successful countries, like Singapore and China, combined widespread testing with contact tracing, public communication campaigns and data collection on the movement of infected people. 

Many Spaniards attribute their country’s lack of preparedness to long-standing structural problems in the economy. Since becoming a democracy in the early 1980s, Spain has gradually transitioned from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one. As it became more embedded in the EU and the global economy, Spain began outsourcing key manufacturing industries that could have served the country well during the current crisis.

Factories that could have been used to manufacture facemasks, ventilators, testing kits, protective gear and medical equipment have been closed and their production outsourced. When the coronavirus hit Spain, there was a severe undersupply of medical essentials that could not be easily imported as the countries manufacturing them, such as China and Japan, have been prioritising their own battles against the coronavirus.

Politics was another major reason why Spain failed to effectively respond to the crisis. Unlike China and Singapore, which have relatively strong authoritarian governments to enforce nationwide regulations to combat the coronavirus, Spain is led by a weak minority government coalition which struggled between taking harsh measures to contain the virus and appeasing other political stakeholders.

Less than a week before enforcing the nationwide lockdown, the Spanish government permitted over 120,000 people to gather in the streets of Madrid in rallies to mark International Women’s Day, for example.

Up until a week before the 14 March lockdown was enforced, thousands of fans in Spain were allowed to attend football matches. As the number of coronavirus cases was beginning to escalate in Italy, 2,500 Valencia football fans from Spain mixed with 40,000 Atalanta fans for a Champions League match in Milan on 19 February.

Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo, the home city of Atalanta, described the match as “the bomb” that exploded the virus in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Upon their return to Spain, Valencia fans were amongst the first Spaniards to report cases of coronavirus. 

Meanwhile life went on as usual, with Spaniards staying out late at bars and restaurants in major cities like Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona. 

When the government began enforcing policies to contain the virus, there was a severe lack of coordination. When schools and universities closed in Madrid on 9 March and the government asked people to stay at home, a vacation mood set in and many went out to enjoy the city’s parks, cafes and restaurants.

Even when Spain’s prime minister announced that he would be invoking emergency powers and enforcing a lockdown, he took more than 24 hours to put them in place. The result was that many residents of Madrid and other big cities in Spain left for their vacation homes, triggering a further spread of the virus across the country.

Spain is now seeing a decrease in the number of new cases, and the death toll is declining day by day. However, policymakers in Spain could have better weathered the storm had they acted earlier, been more prepared and had the political clout to enforce regulations in a more timely fashion. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the  16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: