Reporting on Covid-19 in Spain: 'peaks, troughs and sacrifices

A chunk of the night of 31 January this year was spent on a fact-finding mission to the James Joyce Irish pub in Madrid, where, over the noise of a loud covers band and the bellowing of customers, I shouted for people’s thoughts on the UK’s departure from the EU as the clock struck a muffled midnight.

The following day, after filing my Brexit dispatch to the Observer, I rang a Spanish pilot to ask about one of the stranger missions of his career. Francisco Javier Martínez, an amiable aviator with more than 40 years’ experience, was just back from flying his 747 to China to evacuate 120 people – most of them British and Spanish – from Wuhan.

Those were the early days: the coronavirus outbreak had yet to become a pandemic and the virus was still vying with Brexit to become the story of 2020.

Martínez was modest and matter-of-fact about the trip but, when I look back over his quotes seven months on, his description of flying to China reads rather differently.

chart of daily covid-19 deaths in spain

“Wuhan looked like a desert; there wasn’t a car on the motorway and the airport was totally empty,” he said. “It was as if a bomb had gone off and left the city totally empty. No people, no cars, no movement, nothing. It was all a bit overwhelming.”

Six weeks later, his words could equally have described Spain as it folded itself quickly and compliantly into one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns.

The change was instant. Bars and cafes pulled down their shutters, the traffic disappeared and the shrieks and laughter of children in my Madrid neighbourhood gave way to birdsong at an uncommonly loud pitch – and then, after dark, to the 8pm applause for healthcare workers.

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Overnight, the world had shrunk. Life became a collision of work and homeschooling, my wife and I rushing up and down the stairs to make sure our sons were keeping up with their lessons.

Outside, weeds sprouted from once well-tended streets, the exhibition centre up the road became a field hospital, and the local ice rink was transformed into a makeshift morgue as the capital struggled to maintain the dignity of its coronavirus dead.

Brazil 2,859,073 cases, 97,256 deaths

President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the disease as a “little flu” as it rampaged through his country and mocked measures such as wearing masks. Two health ministers have quit and Brazil’s outbreak is the second-deadliest in the world.

India 1,964,536 cases, 40,699 deaths

India brought in a strict nationwide lockdown in March that slowed the spread of the virus but did not bring it under control. As the country began easing controls, cases surged and it now has the third highest number. Mortality rates are low, but it is unclear if this reflects reporting problems or a relatively resilient population.

Iran 317,000 cases, 17,800 deaths

Iran had one of the first major outbreaks outside China. A lockdown slowed its spread but after that was eased in April, cases rebounded. Several senior officials have tested positive, and the government has strengthened controls, including making masks obligatory in public places.

Israel 78,300 cases, 565 deaths

Israel had an early travel ban and strict lockdowns, and in April the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared the country an example to the world in controlling Covid-19. But cases that in May were down to just 20 a day, skyrocketed after the country started opening up. Partial controls have been brought back with warnings more could follow.

Mexico 456,100 cases, 49,698 deaths

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador joined other populists from across the political spectrum in dismissing the threat from coronavirus; when schools closed in March he shared a video of himself hugging fans and kissing a baby. The outbreak is now one of the worst on the continent.

Philippines 115,980 cases, 2,123 deaths

A strict lockdown from March to June kept the disease under control but shrank the economy for the first time in 20 years. Cases have climbed steadily since the country started coming out of lockdown, and President Rodrigo Duterte has said the country cannot afford to fully reopen because it would be overwhelmed by another spike.

Russia 865,000 cases, 14,465 deaths

Coronavirus was slow to arrive in Russia, and travel bans and a lockdown initially slowed its spread, but controls were lifted twice for political reasons – a military parade and a referendum on allowing Putin to stay in power longer. Despite having the fourth biggest outbreak in the world, controls are now being eased nationwide.

Serbia 27,000 cases, 614 deaths

Cases are rising rapidly, hospitals are full and doctors exhausted. But the government has rowed back from plans to bring back lockdown controls, after two days of violent protests. Critics blame the sharp rise in cases on authorities who allowed mass gatherings in May and elections in June. Officials say it is due to a lack of sanitary discipline, especially in nightclubs.

South Africa 529,000 cases, 9,200 deaths

South Africa has by far the largest outbreak on the African continent, despite one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Sales of alcohol and cigarettes were even banned. But it began reopening in May, apparently fuelling the recent rise in cases.

US 158,000 deaths, 4.8m cases

The US ban on travellers from overseas came late, and though most states had lockdowns of some form in spring, they varied in length and strictness. Some places that were among the earliest to lift them are now battling fast-rising outbreaks, and the country has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths. Opposition to lockdowns and mask-wearing remains widespread.

Source: Johns Hopkins CSSE, 6 August

Photograph: Mark R Cristino/EPA

Confined to my office at home, wondering if my number would come up in the government’s video press conference lottery, I embarked on relentless rounds of phone-bashing and Zoom calls.

There were doctors, nurses, and undertakers; there were care home workers and NGO staff; there were academics and scientists; there were farmers and sex workers; and there were politicians.

Some voices still manage to creep free of the tangle of interviews, their eloquence and clarity all the more remarkable given the circumstances.

The most persistent remains that of the care home worker who told me how much she missed being able to hug her children and those she looked after at work.

“The other day, one of the grannies, who hadn’t seen her daughter for a fortnight, wanted to give me a hug and a kiss,” she said. “But I couldn’t because we’re not allowed. She said: ‘Well at least give me your hand then, sweetheart, because you’re all we’ve got.’”

Occasionally, an interviewee’s worries extended beyond Spain. A few hours before the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, ordered the country into lockdown on 14 March, a nurse from one of the hardest-hit northern regions of Spain got in touch with me through a friend. She was looking on at the British government’s response to the crisis with utter horror.

“I think it’s really important that the UK looks at what is happening in Spain and Italy AND DOES NOT ALLOW things to get even worse there,” she said in a WhatsApp message. “The decisions your government is taking seem terrible to me, and as a nurse I need to try to save as many lives as I can.”

Spain’s lockdown paid off, slashing transmission rates and easing the strain on overstretched intensive care units.

But, as predicted, the number of cases is on the rise once more as the sacrifices of the confinamiento fade, bars and beaches beckon, and the limits of what the government calls “the new normality” are tested.

In the past two weeks, the health ministry has reported 33,965 new cases of Covid-19, 1,772 of them diagnosed in the 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday alone. To date, Spain has logged more than 305,000 cases and recorded more than 28,000 deaths.

We may or may not already be swept up in a second wave here – it depends on the day and on who you ask.

Whatever happens in the coming months, though – whether the schools reopen in September as planned; whether the economy will be back on track by 2023, as Sánchez hopes – the crisis has already yielded some lessons.

Many of the unhealed socioeconomic wounds of the 2008 financial crisis have begun to seep once again. Here, as elsewhere, the poorest have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus and its attendant effects, while the health and care systems in regions such as Madrid are crying out for proper management and investment.

But, as a glance at the number of people wearing face masks on the street will tell you, Spaniards have also shown a remarkable degree of forbearance and a willingness to put their lives on hold for the common good.

If only the same could be said for all of the country’s elected representatives. While some have called for unity and cooperation in the face of a common and global enemy, others are only too happy to exploit the pandemic and carry on puffing out clouds of rhetoric that are as mephitic as they are empty.

My life as a reporter is slowly drifting back towards something approaching its former normality. On Tuesday I drove out of Madrid for the first time in months to report on a story which, also for the first time in months, had nothing to do with Covid-19. And apart from the mask, the hand gel and the distancing, it didn’t feel all that different.

Some things, however, have changed forever. I would like to have been able to return to the UK to see my dad before he died in April, and to have been able to stand a couple of metres from my mum, brother and sister as they buried him on a rainy Friday morning.

As the months roll on and we are pitched from peak to trough, I sometimes wonder whether the foresight could ever have matched the hindsight. And I remember something else that Martínez told me about flying into Wuhan.

A thought had occurred to him as he approached the city, and his nine words still provide as fine a précis of the Covid crisis as you’ll get from anyone. “This was all a bit bigger than we’d thought.”



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