A pandemic atlas: Spanish system fails, and the elderly die

Aritz Parra
Associated Press

Madrid — Patiently lining up, distanced, to buy bread. Watching grandchildren grow via screens. Cheering for a soccer team miles away from the stadium. Gathering for dinner, in reduced groups, at 7 p.m. — early enough so the party can be wrapped before curfew hits.

In 2020, Spaniards normalized things unimaginable only 12 months before. They also rediscovered how expressive eyes can be; mask-wearing is mandatory and widespread.

Dolores Reyes Fernandez, 61, hugs her father, Jose Reyes Lozano, 87, for the first time in nearly four months as visits resume at the nursing home in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, June 22, 2020.

But 2020 also will go down as the year in which an unknown virus shook the foundations of the social contract and exposed a system that failed to prevent so many deaths.

By March 13, when Spain announced a state of emergency, the virus already had been creeping in for weeks. At first, it appeared to have entered with sun-seeking vacationers and soccer fans returning from a game in Italy. But people who died of pneumonia as early as February were later confirmed to have been infected with the new coronavirus.

Two weeks after the first serious outbreaks hit Europe, Spain followed the Italian rulebook step by step, leaving most people secluded at home and paralyzing the economy.

Politicians keep repeating that the system didn’t collapse during that first wave, when the country recorded 929 deaths in a single day. Many show pride in the “miracle” of multiplying hospital beds and intensive-care units to cope with the ill.

But ask health professionals and they will tell you that the actual cost was overworked staff who were sickened more than anywhere else in the world and suffered a huge emotional toll.

People exercise along the Paseo de la Castellana after a relaxation of the government's COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown measures in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, May 9, 2020.

Universal health care has been the backbone of Spain’s welfare state for decades. If officials in charge weren’t able to foresee an epidemic that was slowly but steadily morphing into a pandemic, something clearly went wrong. And it took weeks for doctors and nurses to receive vital protective equipment.

But perhaps the most tragic aspect of all was discovering how a rapidly aging society was unable to protect its elderly. At least 20,000 died in nursing homes during the first three months — overwhelmed hospitals turned away the very women and men who had lifted Spain out of the Franco-era isolation and paid a lifetime of contributions to its social security system.

A patient infected with COVID-19 is treated in one of the intensive care units (ICU) at the Severo Ochoa hospital in Leganes, outskirts of Madrid, Spain, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020.

And yet despite the increasing mistrust in the system, Spaniards showed an exemplary capacity for endurance and resilience. There were rulebreakers, just like everywhere else, among young people who insisted on partying, quarantine-skippers and virus deniers, along with opportunistic shows of political sectarianism.

But the country as a whole put up with arguably the world’s most uncompromising nationwide lockdown. For weeks, Spain stayed at home and sacrificed its economy in a way that will probably burden its future for years.

People stand in their balconies during a nationwide confinement to counter the new coronavirus in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, March 29, 2020.

The virus spread came to a near-total halt. The prime minister declared victory.

But eager to reopen, the tourism industry lobbied the government. People hurried out, eager to reunite with loved ones and make up for the lost time. It was meant to be a different summer, but a summer after all.

Very soon, contagion shot back up, this time placing Spain at the forefront of the resurgence in Europe. Then came hours of parliamentary debates, thousands of protocols for everything from re-opening hotels to properly handling COVID-19 corpses, and pledges to do better. But as the year draws to a close, no standardized and effective test and trace system has been rolled out nationwide.

Francisco Espana, 60, sunbathes in front of the beach near the "Hospital del Mar" in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Politicians blamed rule breakers and, with some of their measures, stigmatized the poor who couldn’t afford to isolate or work from home. Some even went as far as blaming the “lifestyle” of migrants.

Experts, who are demanding an external and independent investigation, blame a mix — a rush to reactivate the economy, bars and restaurants prioritized over schools or parks, plus observance of rules in public but relaxation indoors.

But did political incapacity also play a role? Some Spanish regional governments showed an embarrassing short-sightedness, trying to save money by shorting expenditures for primary care or to fund contact tracing.

Health workers cry during a memorial for their co-worker Esteban, a nurse who died from COVID-19, at the Severo Ochoa Hospital in Leganes in Leganes, Spain, Friday, April 10, 2020.

By mid-December, Spain had reported 3,747 cases per 100,000 population.

At year's end, Spaniards were showing a lack of faith in their institutions, with the doubts most apparent in official polls that found that 55% were suspicious of any COVID-19 vaccination and would not rush to get one.