Spain’s coronavirus week: Deaths rise tenfold in days

The government’s confidence that it could contain the spread of Covid-19 has shattered

On March 7th, Fernando Simón, Spain’s head of medical emergencies, was asked whether it was advisable for people to take part in the following day’s International Women’s Day demonstrations.

“Everyone expresses themselves as they see fit,” he replied, calmly. “If my son asked me if he could go along, I’d tell him he can do as he likes.”

At the time, Spain already had just over 400 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, which had caused a handful of deaths. But the government seemed confident that it could handle the epidemic and for many Spaniards the spiralling crisis across the Mediterranean in Italy seemed a long way off indeed. The March 8th demonstrations went ahead in cities across Spain and in Madrid; 120,000 people marched shoulder-to-shoulder through the streets.

Almost exactly two weeks later, Spain is in a very different situation after events accelerated at a dizzying rate.


Four days after Simón's relaxed appearance before the press, the number of confirmed cases had more than sextupled to 3,000, with 84 deaths linked to the virus. All schools and universities in the Madrid region, and in Vitoria and La Rioja in northern Spain, were shut down, due to outbreaks in those areas. Panic-buying had started in supermarkets in the capital. But elsewhere, life appeared to be continuing as normal, although flights from Italy were stopped and sports events were to be played behind closed doors.

Two days later, schools and universities were closed down across the rest of the country as the number of those infected jumped to over 5,000. The government of Pedro Sánchez announced a state of emergency under which it implemented a national lockdown beginning on March 15th. Forty-seven million Spaniards were told to stay at home unless they had a specific reason to go out, such as buying food or medicine or travelling to work.

In a week between March 13th and 20th, the death toll rose more than tenfold, to over 1,000, and the number of cases neared 20,000.

“We will use all the resources at our disposal to combat the upward curve of contagion,” Sánchez said, after a seven-hour cabinet meeting at which many of the complex details of the restrictions were hammered out. “It is important that we identify the enemy – it is the virus and we must all fight it together.”

He added: “The measures that we are going to use are drastic and they will have consequences.”

For cafe- and bar-loving Spaniards, many of who live in relatively small apartments, the lockdown has been strange and difficult.


Pilar Vicente, a 58-year-old artist and cultural event organiser in the city of Guadalajara, is one of those who is finding life confined to the inside of a flat a challenge. An exhibition she had been working on has been closed down and all the upcoming workshops and conferences she had been due to take part in have been cancelled.

“I’m [at home] with my partner, from whom I’m currently in the process of separating, and with my son, who is preparing for his university entrance exams,” she says of the lockdown. “So there is a lot of tension – with my work, with my partner – and I’m also having to take on the role of teacher, to help my son with his studies.”

The restrictions are being tightly enforced, with police and civil guards patrolling the streets and handing out fines, which start at €600. On Wednesday alone, the local police in Madrid sanctioned just over 800 people and arrested four, all for violating the terms of the state of emergency.

Some wealthier Spaniards sought to avoid urban confinement by escaping their city homes just before the mandatory lockdown came into force. The president of Murcia, Fernando López Miras, complained that many Madrid residents had fled to their second homes in his south-eastern region. They had understood self-isolation “as a kind of holiday” he said, adding that “it gives a regrettable, irresponsible image”.

With schools and universities closed, classes are still being given via Skype and homework via email. WhatsApp groups and social media have been buzzing with complaints, suggestions and jokes about life under coronavirus. The media has been joining in, providing much more than just the latest numbers of those infected and those who have died. One newspaper offered tips on stretching your back for the many Spaniards forced to work at their kitchen table. “How to survive self-isolation without getting divorced” was the headline of another article, in La Vanguardia newspaper.

This is only the second time a Spanish government has declared a state of emergency since the transition from dictatorship to democracy four decades ago. The other occasion was in 2010, when air traffic controllers went on strike. But, as many countries around the world are now discovering, this is a crisis with no precedent in terms of its scale and repercussions.

Spain is the second most heavily affected country in Europe after Italy. Its daily rate of new confirmed cases has been growing at a similar rate to that of Italy and South Korea, albeit about 10 days behind. Many see the Italian comparison as particularly relevant, partly because of the two countries' comparable population sizes and southern European location, but also because, arguably, they have made similar mistakes.

“The authorities have not observed the consequences of what was happening in other places, above all in Italy, our European cousin,” warned the left-leaning online publication Contexto. “Very similar errors have been repeated to those of that country, and what makes it worse is that we already had that example under our nose.”


In particular, Spain’s relatively low rate of testing has been queried, as well as decisions such as allowing the Women’s Day events to go ahead and waiting until last weekend to introduce the lockdown.

Another parallel between Spain and Italy is that each has a hub of infection. For Italy it is the Lombardy region, for Spain it is Madrid.

Spain’s capital and its surrounding region has seen by far the highest number of confirmed cases, nearly half of the country’s total. With Spain’s largest urban population, Madrid is surrounded by a ring of satellite towns and it has one of the world’s busiest airports, so that is perhaps not entirely surprising. However, the virus’s spread through a number of retirement homes in Madrid helps to explain why the capital has seen an alarming percentage of Spain’s coronavirus deaths – around three-quarters throughout much of this week.

According to media reports, at least 19 people in the Monte Hermoso old people’s home have died after contracting the virus.

This means that the healthcare system in Madrid, as well as in other regions which have seen high numbers of infections such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, is under enormous pressure.

Spain’s health service has been one of the undisputed successes of its democratic era, in a heavily decentralised system which offers free and, for the most part, first-class treatment. There has been an emotional public acknowledgement of the effort medical professionals are making – in an echo of Italy’s balcony singing, Spaniards across the country have gone onto their own balconies at night to applaud those caring for the infected.

Sánchez, a socialist, has also been singing the praises of the country’s health service in recent days. However, it is not the same system that the country had a decade ago, before a programme of austerity introduced by the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy cut back heavily on spending. Figures published in the media showed that the country has 4,000 fewer hospital beds than in 2011, and that Madrid, the epicentre of the Spanish crisis, has 1,300 fewer.

“The enormous cuts... have left this healthcare system barely able to respond to the enormous damage that the inevitable expansion of the virus will wreak,” noted Vicenç Navarro, a political scientist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

The government has responded to this pressure by taking unprecedented steps. The healthcare system has been effectively re-centralised under the command of health minister Salvador Illa. Private hospitals are at the disposal of the Spanish state. Medical students in many parts of the country are being recruited to perform administrative tasks and ease the burden on medical professionals. Also, retired doctors under the age of 70 may be asked to return to the medical front line.

In addition, the military has been patrolling the streets of some cities, identifying areas that need disinfection.

Economic slump

Meanwhile, there are very real fears that an economic slump similar to that of a decade ago is looming again. Memories of that double-dip recession, which saw the jobless rate soar to 26 per cent and prompted a request for an EU financial bailout, are painfully fresh and some of its social scars remain.

Since 2013, the euro zone’s fourth economy has been growing again and performing better than many of its neighbours. However, with bars, cafes, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and most shops closed down, that recovery is suddenly looking desperately fragile.

The tourism industry, which makes up 12 per cent of national GDP, is bracing itself for disaster. It is still too early to quantify the damage, but, after the annual Fallas festival in Valencia was called off earlier this month, organisers said the city had lost €700 million. The announcement of the cancellation of Easter parades followed by the closure, this coming week, of all hotels in Spain was practically inevitable but no less devastating.

“The numbers of jobs lost could be catastrophic, possibly worse than the crisis of 2008, if this situation continues beyond June and we lose all the jobs that we usually create during the summer in the tourism and hostelry sectors,” Carlos Martínez, of the IMF business school, told local media.

With such forecasts in mind, Sánchez has unveiled an economic rescue package which he describes as “the biggest mobilisation of funds in Spain’s history”. Worth €200 billion, it offers credit lines and loan guarantees to companies. Also, with the hundreds of thousands of evictions of homeowners that the last economic crisis caused in mind, the government has said mortgage payment delays will be granted to those worst affected by the coronavirus.

“Spaniards must understand that, whether you are an employee or an employer, you will have the support of our government, we will leave nobody behind,” Sánchez said after announcing the plan.

This virus has hit Spain at a time of political instability. Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is governing, with the Podemos party to its left, in the first coalition administration of the modern era. It took office in January with a narrow majority and thanks to the parliamentary support of Catalan nationalists. The territorial crisis triggered by Catalonia’s efforts to secede, which has polarised Spain and embittered the country’s politics, had been expected to dominate this legislature.

Political class

However, the coronavirus's spread to the political class has been a reminder, if any was needed, that right now it is the only issue on the agenda. In the last two weeks two cabinet ministers, Irene Montero and Carolina Darias, have tested positive, as have the president of Catalonia, Quim Torra, and of Madrid, Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, the leader of the far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, and the prime minister's wife, Begoña Gómez.

Already there has been a degree of political in-fighting. The right-wing opposition initially berated Sánchez for not taking more strident action to halt the virus. The Catalan government, meanwhile, has bridled at the recentralising of medical services and complained that the northeastern region has been marginalised by the central government.

But as the situation deteriorated this week, the main opposition Popular Party (PP) made a conciliatory gesture.

"I tell you, Mr Sánchez, you are not alone in the battle against this pandemic," said PP leader Pablo Casado. "To fight it you can count on the support of the leader of the opposition and the Popular Party."

He added: “Unlike other serious crises of the past, we will face this one together.”

It is hard to know how long that truce will last, but it felt like a significant moment. Political opportunism, such a hard currency in Spanish public life in recent years, has suddenly been devalued in the context of a life-threatening emergency.

Ordinary Spaniards, meanwhile, are also seeking an upside to all of this. Pilar Vicente, from her apartment in Guadalajara, anticipates major change “for better or for worse”.

“It really gives me the creeps to see the streets lined with the military,” she says. “But I also think the situation is bringing a lot of people together – it is giving us space to reflect and to connect with each other more.”