Spain is Different! COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN SPAIN
Angeles Farran Morales
It has been almost a year since the pandemic started. It really took everybody by surprise although there were some warning signs that were ignored. By mid-February, the Northern regions of Italy were already in lockdown, in Spain only a few cases were reported and our head epidemiologist, Fernando Simón, reassured the Spanish population, saying that the situation was completely under control. Meanwhile, Italian tourists were happily running around without being tested. At that time, my father was fighting against a chemotherapy resistant head and neck tumor and starting his treatment. I first became aware of the seriousness of what was coming ahead after talking to my former lab mate, a professor at Politecnico di Milano and my father’s oncologist. News coming from Italy was not good, people were already dying and the WHO was talking about a possible pandemic. My father’s oncologist advised us not to use public transportation and stay at home.
I thought to myself, this is not a simple flu but the politicians do not want to alarm people. That was the beginning of March and the city authorized a demonstration to celebrate March the 8th. Dr. Simon told us on public television that it was absolutely safe to go and he would even let his children go if they wished to. By that time, I had already taken masks, gloves and ethanol from my lab. I was worried about my father and his visits to the hospital. From March 1 to March 14 we went from 60 cases to 6000 and more than 60 dead. Lockdown was imminent, our prime minister announced the state of alarm March, 13.
Before that no masks could be purchased anywhere, so was the hydroalcoholic gel.
The situation in hospitals was chaotic, they just could not keep up with the number of patients. Looking back now, the worst thing was that the hospital staff had no means of protection against COVID, PPE was not available to everyone and the virus was spreading fast. The first weeks after the pandemic was declared Italy and Spain were the two countries with most cases reported. Those numbers were not even close to reality. Our hospitals did not have enough equipment to perform the number of PCRs required to properly diagnose sick people that were being rushed to the hospitals. The lack of proper protective equipment was also an issue, health care workers had to even make their own with garbage bags.
Soon, some of my closest friends were ill, and although some of them had strong symptoms, luckily they all recovered. Nursing homes counted deaths by hundreds each week. All non-essential activity was shut down and we had to quickly adapt to working remotely. It was hard for many and we were unprepared. Public administration, historically slow in Spain, was even slower. We had a rude awakening as we were forced to act fast.
On a sad note, all families that lost loved ones, could not even accompany them and give them a proper goodbye. In big cities, like Madrid or Barcelona, the crematory ovens could not keep up and bodies were sent to other cities to be cremated and ashes delivered to the families later.
For weeks we kept coming out to our balconies at eight o’clock every night to cheer and clap our hands for the ones that were fighting COVID-19 in hospitals and medicalized hotels. Meanwhile, we stayed at home waiting for the numbers to drop. They eventually did and we slowly entered the new normal.
News coming from other countries seemed at that time worrying but the situation was far worse in Italy than in Spain. Looking back at how the whole situation unfolded, I came to the conclusion that not only Spain, but other countries underestimated the scope of what was ahead. Perhaps the experts did not state the importance of controlling the spread of the virus at the beginning and gave misleading information in order not to scare the population or perhaps the politicians were in charge, not the experts. In Spain, our Health minister has a degree in philosophy and later confessed that no experts, apart from Dr. Simon, were backing up his decisions.
Now, a year later, and coming out of the third wave, we have gained some knowledge about how to handle a health emergency. The importance of having a good strategy to fight something of this magnitude is crucial and no doubt that science must play a key role. Unfortunately, some politicians decided to turn their back on science and make decisions based on something different. Needless to say, in Spain the economy has been profoundly affected. About 25% of our GDP depends on tourism and the pandemic has put a stop to it. Unemployment will reach 16.8% of the active workforce by the end of this year. Now, with the Summer season, the debate is if we should open up and let tourism return or to close down until we reach herd immunity. Our economy is now suffering and if business does not go back to normal soon, it will be disastrous. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next few months, it all depends on the vaccination rate.
Without a doubt, the pandemic has brought a new way of life that is here to stay. Spain will have to react, recover and hopefully will have learnt a few lessons.
Angeles Farran Morales is a native of Madrid, and graduate of the University Complutense of Madrid. After taking a masters degree in chemistry at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, she came to the United States to visit a family in Perrysburg ( Kathy and John Benavides of East River Rd) and spent the summer with them to improve her English and teach Spanish to her three year old daughter Emily, Through Kathy Benavides, a former BGSU alumna, she discovered the Ph. D. program in the photochemical sciences at BGSU and was among that program’s first Ph D. alumni. After postdoctoral stays in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Italy she returned home where she is currently professor at the National Distance Education University (UNED) in Madrid.