Why is Spain taking longer to respond to the coronavirus pandemic than its European neighbors?

EL PAÍS speaks to experts about why Spanish authorities continue to drag their feet when it comes to introducing measures that have already been applied in several nations with much lower incidence rates

A restaurant in Frankfurt delivers takeaway food due to the closure of the hostelry sector in Germany.
A restaurant in Frankfurt delivers takeaway food due to the closure of the hostelry sector in Germany.Michael Probst (AP)
Pablo Linde

With respect to coronavirus cases, Spain has always been one step ahead of the rest of Europe. If during the first wave of the pandemic, Spain was one of the countries where contagions rose the fastest, in the ongoing second wave, it has been the irrefutable leader. But Europe has often been ahead of Spain in introducing measures to curb the virus. Germany, the European Union country that has likely best controlled the pandemic, decided to close the hostelry sector before the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants exceeded 200. In Spain, that figure is now around 500. Despite this, only a few regions have decided to close bars and restaurants. In Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Greece, authorities ordered a home lockdown before the incidence rate reached 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Other European countries also introduced the measure but after reaching higher transmission rates. In Spain, however, the central government has said home confinement is not currently necessary.

Experts who have spoken to EL PAÍS in the past few months agree that Spain has always been one step behind the virus. They also agree that Spain has taken longer than other countries to take action: not only has its response been slower than Asian nations – considered role models by many governments, although only a few have dared to follow their example – during the second wave, it has also been slower than its European neighbors. Why is this the case?

There is not a single answer to this question, just as the incidence rate is not the only coronavirus indicator to consider: it’s a good guideline, but when it comes to introducing measures, it is also important to look at the pressure on hospitals, the population, trends and tracking capability, among other data points. If Spain’s overall response to the pandemic has been slow, it is no doubt due to a combination of factors. Public health experts, political scientists, sociologists and economists who spoke to EL PAÍS point to several reasons: the lack of an independent agency to guide the coronavirus response, the decision to prioritize the economy over public health, the very structure of the Spanish economy, tensions between the central and regional government and the country’s broader social situation.

Health reasons

In Spain, there is “an immature relationship between science and politics,” says Fernando García Benavides, professor of public health at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “It’s hard for us to respect each other’s field,” he says. In his opinion, this friction meant that “precious time was lost” in strengthening prevention and tracking systems, as well as assessing the policies of the first wave to see what would work for the second, as requested by a group of Spanish scientists in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

Several experts also point to the fact that Spain does not have a public health agency with the independence necessary to publish coronavirus figures and recommendations based on scientific evidence. Miguel Hernán, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, argues that an independent agency would have “unequivocally” warned about the shortcomings of the strategy to control the pandemic in June, and of the “imminent danger” of the disease resurging in several territories between the end of July and beginning of August. “Instead of this, the population received messages of complacency,” he says.

Political reasons

Several political scientists blame Spain’s slow response on the conflict between the central and regional governments, the difficulties with extending the state of alarm and the ceding of responsibilities.

In a bid to control the spread of the coronavirus, the Spanish government, headed by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, declared a state of alarm on March 14. But this emergency measure had to be extended every 15 days by Spain’s lower house, the Congress of Deputies, which was a challenge given the government does not have an absolute majority. The state of alarm came to an end in June when it was clear the government no longer had the votes it needed for another two-week extension, and full powers to control the epidemic were returned to the regional governments. In October, the central government declared another state of alarm, which has been extended for six months by parliament, but in this case to give regional authorities the legal framework they need to limit mobility.

A sidewalk café in Madrid, one of the many regions where the hostelry sector has not been closed.
A sidewalk café in Madrid, one of the many regions where the hostelry sector has not been closed.Olmo Calvo (EL PAÍS)

“With a weak government, difficulties approving the last extensions and disputes with regional leaders, who have opposed the executive, the central government wants to return the ball by handing responsibilities back to the regions, but the regional governments are being irresponsible and uncooperative, which we knew was going to happen beforehand, because (all) their leaders love to ask for and spend money, but not to give bad news,” says Javier Lorenzo, professor of political science at the Carlos III University in Madrid. “Agreeing to decisions mitigates the share of blame and guilty partners but does not necessarily mean better decisions. They have not invested in necessary resources, they have not made action plans for potential scenarios. This is a political error of those within the institutions, due to a lack of leadership, responsibility and the maturity to assume the responsibility of the role they occupy. Very weak parties, with very weak leadership, that look more to achieve short-term effects than to govern and assume the consequences,” he adds.

Although decentralizing responsibilities does not have to be a problem, it can make the decision-making process slower if it is not managed well, says Piotr Zagórski, professor of political science at Madrid’s Autonomous University. “Shared governance is slower in its response, as decisions that are made on a national level have to be agreed to by the regions. And responding quickly is key to stopping contagion peaks. Decentralizing management must be accompanied by proper coordination on a national level,” he explains.

Economic reasons

For Rafael Bengoa, an expert in health systems, the reason why it has taken so long for some coronavirus restrictions to be introduced comes down to the economy. “We are trying to protect the economy and control the virus at the same time. In Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, they first attacked the virus with a second month-long confinement and then began to reopen the economy. All have stopped falling economically, and South Korea is growing at 1.9%,” he says. “In these countries, protecting health has led to a better economy. In Spain, protecting the economy has led to worse health and a worse economy.”

If Spain has taken longer than it should have to introduce coronavirus restrictions, this is partly due to its economic structure. Raymond Torres, the head of international analysis at the think tank Funcas, explains that sectors that require most human interaction, such as tourism and the hostelry industry, generate between five and six points of gross domestic product (GDP) more than the European average. “Any restrictive measure is met with more rejection. Even before it is taken, there is resistance because it has immediate and very visible repercussions, although the costs are much lower than the benefits of good preventive measures, as we have seen in some Asian countries. The cost of waiting is much more than acting early,” he says.

Social reasons

Pablo Santoro, a professor in the sociology department of Madrid’s Complutense University, believes social reasons have had less of an impact than politics on Spain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “The population has not been consulted at all. I think people would have accepted more restrictive measures earlier,” he says. But Santoro does believe that cultural reasons could have influenced the collective feeling, more or less present over summer, that Spain was not going to see a repeat of what happened in March and that tougher restrictions would not be needed.

Face masks were made mandatory in Spain before other countries, but experts warn this may have led to a false sense of security.
Face masks were made mandatory in Spain before other countries, but experts warn this may have led to a false sense of security.J. Casares (EFE)

Santoro says the use of face masks, which were made mandatory in all public spaces in Spain before many other countries, may have led to a false sense of security. He also highlights the importance of individual behavior, rather than collective actions. “In a relatively similar way with what happened in the first years of the HIV epidemic, considering that there are certain social collectives (young people, migrants poor neighborhoods) that are dangerous gives a false sense of security to those who don’t belong to those groups or interact with them,” he explains.

Lastly, Santoro makes reference to an article published in May in the Spanish Sociology Magazine that found that Spaniards tend to be both more conforming and less trusting, with respect to others and the government. “Perhaps this less than stimulating combination of conformism, widespread distrust and little encouragement of independent thinking has stopped there from being stronger collective pressure on governments to introduce public health measures, or in general a more socially critical and participatory perspective with respect to the how the epidemic is being managed. This instead has been substituted for a belief in which it is enough to obey the recommendations of the experts, or if anything, a more partisan option that my party is managing [the crisis] better.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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