Spain’s security council downplayed risk of coronavirus pandemic in early March

The report was ratified by the advisory body 10 days before the declaration of a state of alarm over the spread of Covid-19

King Felipe VI presides the meeting of the Spanish Security Council.
King Felipe VI presides the meeting of the Spanish Security Council.Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)
Miguel González

On March 4, just 10 days before Spain decreed a state of alarm to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government’s top national security advisory body ratified a report minimizing the risk of a pandemic.

The National Security Council approved a document ranking the likelihood of a pandemic in 2020 in 14th place out of a list of 15 worst-case scenarios contemplated by the National Security Strategy. Only the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was listed as even more unlikely.

The annual report, which the government has just sent to Congress, did warn about the need to “upgrade [public] health monitoring systems in Spain.”

Slow reaction

The lack of awareness about the risk posed by a virus that was already spreading in Spain can be explained by the fact that the bulk of the document had been drafted months earlier. The National Security Council merely ratified it on March 4 at a ceremony presided by King Felipe VI and attended by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, his four deputy PMs, nine ministers and numerous state secretaries.

The report evidences the inability of Spain’s bureaucratic machinery to react swiftly to new developing situations, as well as underscoring experts’ limited foresight.

For the first time this year, the document included a risk analysis in the short term (for 2020) and the mid-term (to 2022), based on the probability and danger inherent to each scenario. A pandemic was described as the sixth least-dangerous of all the contemplated situations.

By the time the report was approved, the World Health Organization (WHO) had already issued an international alert; the coronavirus had spread from China to Europe, Italy had shut down all its schools, and the first cases had been recorded in Spain.

Cybercrimes, espionage

The report said that the most probable risks to the nation were the vulnerability of its cyberspace, espionage, financial instability, irregular immigration and the effects of climate change, in that order.

As for the most dangerous situations, cyberspace violations ranked first, followed by emergencies and disasters, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, espionage and threats to critical infrastructure.

On a scale of one to five, with one being very unlikely and five very likely, the risk of experiencing a pandemic scored 2.7. Meanwhile, the danger posed by a pandemic was established at 3.4, where one means minimal danger and five has catastrophic implications.

Survey of experts

The risk analysis was based on a survey sent out to 230 government experts, private companies and members of academia, as well as on an analysis of global reports.

Only half of the experts sent back answers, and of these, only 21% were women while there was a significant presence of experts from the fields of defense and the fight against terrorism and organized crime, a fact that plays a role in the report’s concept of security.

The report’s forecast for 2022 was that the risk of experiencing a pandemic would not increase, unlike most of the other scenarios. While there was a specific chapter on health risks that mentions Ebola and listeria, there was no mention of coronaviruses, although this family of viruses was already known before the emergence of SARS-Cov-2.

The document acknowledged that globalization favors greater mobility of pathogens that could trigger an epidemic, but added that existing healthcare mechanisms would enable early detection and lead to action to reduce the impact on the population.

It also warned about the need for Spain to upgrade its health-monitoring systems, to integrate this information with early-alert systems, and to introduce automated processes to help recognize signs and take action.

According to the report, the biggest risk on the health front in the years to come is “resistance to antibiotics.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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