In Spain, every night at 8 pm, millions of people clap
  • José María Irujo
  • Updated 2020.05.12 15:08
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Medical staff respond to the applause by the people in front of a hospital in Madrid on 24 March ⓒEPA

As of 26 March, 56,188 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Spain. The country has the second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths after Italy. José María Irujo, an investigative journalist of El Páis, the Spanish daily newspaper, sent us a special report on this subject. El Páis, founded in 1976, is the world’s leading Spanish daily newspaper, which expanded its readers and reporting coverage to Central and South America. Mr. Irujo is a renowned investigative journalist who was named the winner of the 2014 King of Spain International Journalism Prize in the press category. He also visited Korea to introduce the investigative reports of El Páis to Korean at the 2017 SisaIn Journalism Conference held in Seoul.

Every evening at 8 p.m., millions of Spaniards clap to show appreciation and solidarity to healthcare workers from their windows and balconies. Fear of the coronavirus has paralyzed the lives of 47 millions Spanish people. Even though the cities and towns are empty and have lost their vigor, people gather on their balconies at 8 p.m. sharp every day and applaud for 350,000 medical and health workers working to save lives in 344 hospitals across Spain.

Marta De Codes, 60, and her two daughters respectively 26 and 24 stand on their balcony every night in their home located in Salamanca, Madrid. 800 people have died of coronavirus in Salamanca, Madrid’s downtown area having a population of 6 million residents. This is the area where the highest number of deaths caused by COVID-19 has been reported. Residents of Salamanca have been participating in this nightly ritual every single day since the Spanish government imposed a nationwide lockdown. Some are playing an old Spanish hit ‘Resistiré (I will survive)’ by Dúo Dinámico.
The two younger women’s computers are never turned off. They still retain their jobs and they have been working from home for two weeks now. Maria works at a digital marketing consultancy firm, and Christina works at a well-known international consulting company, KPMG. They hear about their friends getting laid off. Their mother, Marta, has a store that sells baby products; it has been closed for  two weeks. Bills from suppliers are getting stacked.

Spaniards give a big hand to medical staff ⓒReuter

Outstanding healthcare system in crisis

However, they are better off than others because Marta’s two daughters are getting their paychecks. Spanish companies have implemented temporary layoffs. Banco de España has recently made a gloomy statement that Spain is going through an unprecedented challenge. The European Union decided to close its external borders, and suspend the Stability and Growth Pact obligations designed to restrict budget deficit of countries in the European Union from exceeding 3% of GDP.

Madrid has become the epicenter of coronavirus pandemic in Spain. As of 26 March, 2,090 out of 4,089 deaths were reported from Madrid, the most affluent and international city in Spain. The number of cases tested positive exceeds over 15,000 in Madrid. Funeral homes announced they would stop collecting bodies due to shortage of equipment, and Madrid’s regional government ordered to use an ice rink, Palacio del Hielo as a makeshift morgue for the coronavirus victims. For Italy, which has been heavily attacked by COVID-19, its most beautiful and well-developed city, Lombardia has the world’s largest number of deaths. As of 25 March, Spain and Italy overtook China in the COVID-19 death toll.

An ambulance enters the ice rink now a makeshift morgue in Madrid ⓒAFP PHOTO

For Spain, COVID-19 has spread among the elderly in Madrid. Hundreds of COVID-19 patients are transferred from national hospitals to private hospitals since the public hospitals overflow with patients.
Currently the Spanish healthcare facilities are controlled under an integrated management since the COVID-19 tragedy have occurred. “We will fully cooperate with the government,” said Carlos Rus, president of Spanish Private Health Alliance (la Alianza de la Sanidad Privada Española).
Healthcare facilities and providers were nationalized as the government declared a state of emergency on 14 March. All hospitals are temporarily under the government’s control due to the current unprecedented outbreak. The ‘Risk Management Commission’ consisting of eight from the public health sector and two from the private sector hold the exclusive right to decide the transfer of patients.
There are 267,000 medical staff and 51,377 beds in 460 private hospitals in Spain, which account for 32% of all available beds.  The number of private Intensive Care Unit beds reaches 1,172 and that of public hospitals is 4,627. However, these units, which are responsible for saving critical patients’ lives all across the country including Madrid are almost full. Currently, 10,000 confirmed cases are about to be transferred to any of the ICU’s.
A director of a private hospital in Madrid said, “We have prepared space for the ICU. We secured beds by reducing other surgeries and examination, and are ready to meet the patients who will be transferred from public hospitals.” However, there has not been any discussion on the expenditure required for treatments yet. One of the members of the Commission said, “It’s not a time to talk about money, but it’s a time to save lives”
Spain’s public healthcare system is regarded as one of the best in the world. However, it has been suffering the worst-ever crisis during the last few weeks. No one can be optimistic about the results of this battle. After the People’s Party, a conservative party, took power in 2012, it cut the healthcare budget for the sake of saving 7.2 billion Euro. The burden of paying for medicines has increased, illegal immigrants have been excluded from healthcare system, and about 20,000 people have been laid off – but medical services in Spain are still free.
80 billion Euro, which is 7% of the GDP, is needed to feed this gigantic dinosaur which has more than 100,000 beds. The healthcare system is the pride of Spain and 70% of its population praise it. However, this giant’s steps are sometimes slow. 11 million people buy private insurance because they sometimes have to wait too long for a medical examination. 
The 350,000 medical staff who are applauded by the Spaniards every night are reaching their limit. Even though 50,000 retired doctors and newly designated staff answered the government’s call, the cooperation of private hospitals and two hotels near a public hospital are being used as medical facilities due to lack of capacity. The army, also, has settled up a temporary hospital with 5,500 beds at a convention center. Soon this will accommodate the patients with mild cases.
The ominous hands of the virus are also attacking the white gowned heroes. A nurse in País Vasco of northern Spain died, and 52% of the 128 medical staff at Hospital de La Paz, a general hospital in Madrid tested positive for COVID-19. Currently, more than 6,000 doctors and nurses have been infected by the virus.
Like Italy whose death tolls were higher among those 80 and plus, the elderly in Spain have become a major target of the coronavirus. The virus sneaked into nursing homes, and turned the bedrooms and basements into temporary morgues. Families had to watch a coffin delivered from a distance without being able to say a proper farewell. At one point the military medical personnel in charge of the quarantine at a nursing home found a number of elderly people who have died in their beds. 
Over a hundred senior citizens died in nursing homes, and half of the number occured in Madrid. Some asked desperately for an ambulance and transfer, but no one could get help from the hospitals. “I was told that my 80 year-old father had died suddenly” said Yolanda. Another person, Jesus, said, “I was advised to take my mother home because she could not be admitted to the hospital. But I left her at  nursing home because I thought this would be safer.” These two people lost their parents. As of now, about 270,000 seniors are residing in Madrid, and 30% of them are living alone.
The most tragic case is the Monte Hermoso nursing home where 25 out of 130 people died. 75 staff and residents tested positive. No confirmed cases were transferred to hospitals. The prosecution is investigating this case with negligence due to inadvertence in mind.
Carmen Flores, the president of Patient Defense Association (Asociaciónde Defensa al Paciente) filed a complaint, saying “This is an extreme case where there is lack of safety, hygiene, employees and resources.” Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the president of the Madrid region pointed out that even the central area of Madrid is short of medical staff. According to the Labor Union’s announcement, a majority of nursing homes don’t have diagnostic kits and employees are working without masks.
While the elderly die alone in nursing homes, the news continue to emphasize that the elderly are the most vulnerable group, implying clearly local authorities are not adequately protecting those who are the most vulnerable and exposed to the disease.
The Spanish government refers to South Korea’s exemplary management of the COVID-19 pandemic. These two countries are similar in population, average age, and life expectancy (82 to 83 years-old). However, the result of battling the virus has been somewhat different. The Spanish government’s aggressive preventive measures were declared 11 days behind those of the South Korean government. The two countries’ management on COVID-19 is contrary to each other – while Korea diagnosed hundreds of thousands of people, Spain tested only those considered serious cases. Spain was short of test kits. The Spanish Ministry of Health admitted this situation and imported 650,000 diagnostic kits. However, the shipping delayed. The number are different. South Korea tested about 5,000 times per one million citizens while Spain has conducted 600 times.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared a state of emergency to stop the spread of COVID-19 on 14 March ⓒEPA

Lockdown for two week, hotels ordered to close

People wonder why Germany has remarkably small number of deaths even though there was no difference in the number of confirmed cases in comparison to Spain. It still remains a mystery. One thing is that there was no consensus on how to tackle the pandemic among the European countries, and even when they did come up with a common measure, it took several weeks for the UK to join the effort.  
In South Korea, the mayor of Daegu asked citizens to stay home, calling the situation an ‘unprecedented crisis’ when the number of confirmed cases started to exceed 50. On the other hand, the Spanish government permitted a rally where 120,000 people gathered from all across the country to proceed on 8 March on the occasion International Women’s Day. Even though the European Center for Disease and Prevention and Control (ECDC) warned the possible spread of the coronavirus, the rally was held even with the attendance of a couple of ministers from the government. In the same weekend, Spain’s far-right party, VOX, hosted a meeting with 6,000 supporters at a bullring in Madrid. The leaders and the secretary general officially apologized after they tested positive for COVID-19.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez admitted that he would have responded differently “if he had known what he knows today.” On the same day, the Parliament authorized the government to restrict the mobility of people for two weeks. The parliament chamber was almost half empty; only 1 representative each from 16 parties attended. Ironically, while Valentina Cepeda working in the Spanish Parliament disinfected the lawmakers’ monitors wearing a mask and gloves, the secretary general of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party called for unity to overcome the crisis.

250,000 restaurants across the country also closed. Spain is known for its people’s active social life as its number of bar per capita reaches 175, but the streets are still empty. The government ordered hotels to close, and citizens comply with it in an orderly manner. The government extended the restriction on movement for another 15 days till Semana Santa, a week prior to Easter Day. Spain is the second most visited country in the world. It seems to have an effect on the tourism industry heavily.

As of 26 March, the total number of confirmed cases is 56,000 and it increases every day. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said “We will reach the limit as the worst looms.” Everyone goes out on their balcony, claps and asks when this war will be over. Miguel Ángel Villarroya, a Spanish Air Force general said “We have to fight against the virus as if we are all armed soldiers. Because this is  wartime.” More and more people are starting to  believe it.

translated by  Ashley Meejeen Lee
translation supervised by Beckhee Cho