Coronavirus: where did Spain go so wrong in outbreak response?

The country’s death toll now exceeds that in China

Beds ready for coronavirus patients at a temporary hospital at Madrid’s Ifema exhibition complex
(Image credit: Comunidad de Madrid via Getty Images)

Spain’s coronavirus death toll has overtaken that in China after climbing to more than 4,000 - the second-highest tally in the world after Italy.

More than 56,000 cases of the deadly virus have now been reported in Spain, with 6,673 new infections and 442 deaths recorded in the past 24 hours alone.

Madrid is the European country’s worst-affected region, but Catalonia has also seen a rapid increase in cases, according the BBC.

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What went wrong in Spain?

Italy could have served as as a warning for how the virus might spread in Europe, but Spain’s reaction to the threat appears to have been slow.

The authorities in Madrid confirmed the country’s first coronavirus case on 31 January, on the Spanish island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

A week later, Dr Fernando Simon, head of medical emergencies in Madrid, predicted that “Spain will only have a handful of cases”, reports the The Guardian.

Life in Spain continued as normal, with a Champions League football match between Italian team Atalanta and Spanish side Valencia held at Milan’s San Siro stadium in mid-February. The fixture brought together 40,000 fans from Bergamo, now Italy’s worst-affected province, and 2,500 Valencia fans.

Within seven days, hospitals in the Valencia area began reporting their first coronavirus-related admissions - with sports journalists and fans who attended the game in Italy accounting for the majority of the patients.

Yet other sports events, political party conferences and massive demonstrations to mark International Women’s Day continued to go ahead. And around 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans flew to Liverpool for a Champions League clash on 11 March.

Three days later, the Spanish government finally declared a state of emergency and imposed a national lockdown – initially for two weeks – with citizens told to leave their homes only to buy food or seek medical treatment.

Some commentators have linked the Spanish authorities’ slow response to the weak political position held by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez after forming a minority government in January. Critics claim that Sanchez did not want to “risk his fragile hold on power” by banning large gatherings of people in the early days of the outbreak, reports Vox.

Angela Hernandez Puente, an official at a health trade union in Madrid, told the news site: “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’s happened in Italy.”

As the crisis escalates, soldiers have been drafted in to help police cities and disinfect contaminated sites.

This week, Spain’s state prosecutor launched an investigation after troops helping to tackle the outbreak found elderly people dead and abandoned in retirement homes, reports Al Jazeera.

For a nation “that takes justified pride in its family bonds, its conviviality and its national health service, these are bleak and sobering days,” says The Guardian’s Madrid correspondent Sam Jones.

With Spain’s lockdown currently due to continue until 11 April, people across the country are gathering on their patios, balconies and at their doors at 8pm each day to applaud health workers working on the front line.

“But when the ritual thanks are no longer needed, the clamour for answers will be just as loud and insistent,” predicts Jones.

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