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Critics round on Spain’s response after record death toll

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Via Financial Times

Delivering his daily coronavirus update on Friday morning, Fernando Simón dashed a nation’s tenuous hopes that it had turned a corner in the fight against the virus.

The doctor spearheading Spain’s response to the pandemic crisis announced a record daily death toll of 769, after the country’s spirits had been briefly raised the previous day when the number of fatalities dipped to 655. 

Spain has become an epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic and is behind only China, the US and Italy in the number of confirmed cases.

The trajectory of deaths in Spain is steeper than it was in Italy at a similar stage in its virus outbreak, underscoring deep concerns about the speed and adequacy of the measures taken to control the outbreak.

“We are in a worse position than Italy because everything has been done far too late,” said Alex Arenas, an epidemic modeller at Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona.

He was among 70 scientists who signed an open letter last weekend calling for the government of Pedro Sánchez to introduce much tougher measures to control the outbreak.

The letter called for a total lockdown, which would eliminate exceptions that allow some people to go to work as normal in offices, factories and construction sites. Although bars, restaurants and public parks in Spain are closed, some people are still going to work and public transport is running at a limited capacity.

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“We need a total lockdown as soon as possible. There is a short window of opportunity for it to have the effect that is needed,” Mr Arenas said.

While politicians in some countries have suspended hostilities during the crisis, Mr Sanchez’s government has faced criticism for a series of inadequate measures and mis-steps in its early days of the outbreak, and weak enforcement of the lockdown. “Every delay, lie or error costs lives,” Pablo Casado, head of the centre-right People’s Party, said on Friday.

Even traditional allies have turned on the socialist government. A column in the normally sympathetic El País newspaper by its co-founder Juan Luis Cebrián slammed the government for downplaying the danger of the epidemic early on despite clear evidence to the contrary. He accused ministers of “minimising the threat” from the virus, including encouraging mass gatherings and public events.

On March 8, Madrid hosted a large International Women’s Day march attended by members of the government as well as Mr Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, who later tested positive for the virus.

Charts showing Spain's worrying virus trajectory. Cumulative number of confirmed cases, by number of days since 100th case and cumulative number of deaths, by number of days since 10th death

Another rally on the same day by the far-right Vox party saw some of its leaders also returned positive tests soon after. These gatherings took place on the same day that a swath of northern Italy was being completely locked down.

In February and early March, as the deadly virus gained footholds around the world, life in Spain continued largely as normal, despite the warning signs. It was only on March 14 that Spain’s lockdown was announced. By then, many Spaniards had already left for their second houses to wait out what they hoped would be a short quarantine.

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Mr Arenas described this as a “dispersion of seeds, a dispersion of infected people”, adding: “This is the problem with the lack of co-ordinated actions. You have to prepare society to stop everything from the very start.”

Shortages of necessary protection, diagnostic and respiration equipment has also hamstrung Spain’s response. Health workers have been left to treat infected victims without the correct protection gear. More than 9,400 health workers have been infected and three have died.

A symbol of Spain’s troubles was the purchase from China of tens of thousands of diagnostic kits which Madrid hoped would allow it to ramp up testing. But much of the consignment had to be returned to China after providing inaccurate results.

Some have pointed out that the Spanish government was — like everyone else — caught out by an unprecedented emergency. “No country was prepared for this,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former WHO director and health minister of the Basque region.

Joan Ramón Villalbí, a former president of Spain’s public health society, said the March 14 confinement measures were introduced when there were about 6,000 confirmed virus cases nationally. France and Italy took similar measures when they had about 8,000 and 9,000 cases respectively, he pointed out.

In neighbouring Portugal the situation is less acute, with 76 deaths and about 4,200 confirmed virus cases. But Ricardo Baptista Leite, head of the public health department at Lisbon’s Catholic University, said Portuguese were watching events in Spain like a “horror movie in advance”, fearing what might lay in store.

Mr Baptista Leite, who is also health spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats, said the country was only about a week behind Spain in terms of the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants and its curving was rising.

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“Portugal has a minor advantage in that we have tried to learn from what has happened in Spain,” he said.

Explaining the rapid spread of the infection, he stressed the role of social factors, including the closeness of extended families in the two countries, where large families often live together in apartments. This population density, he said, produced a “hotbed for viral propagation”.

Announcing the record death toll on Friday, Mr Simón sought solace in the slowing growth of other indicators, such as the number of people in intensive care units. “We are approaching the long-awaited peak,” he said. “We need to start the decline.”

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