Corona virus in Spain: who is to blame?

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In Catalonia, the number of people infected with corona is increasing rapidly. The conflict between the regions and the central government in Madrid makes it difficult to fight the pandemic.


With a mask on the beach: scene from Barcelona © Nacho Doce / Reuters

New corona infections are currently emerging all over Spain: According to the Ministry of Health, there are more than 400 local pandemic outbreaks. The situation in Catalonia seems particularly dramatic. The health authorities there warn that the situation is critical. Although the number of patients in intensive care has not yet increased significantly, it is already four times higher in health centers than in the last week of June. The Federal Foreign Office advises against traveling Catalonia ab – the vacation on the Costa Brava and the city trip to Barcelona are canceled.

This is a shock for the tourism industry and therefore for the whole economy. In Catalonia, tourism is one of the most important pillars of the economy with twelve percent of the economic output. The regional government is therefore trying to limit the damage. At a press conference, her President Quim Torra initially urged the population to avoid social contacts and to stay at home as much as possible. He then turned to the press in English and advertised Catalonia as a safe vacation destination.

It was a somewhat adventurous balancing act, in which the question of who is actually responsible for the increase in the number of infections was overlooked: the tourists, who sometimes stroll through the streets without a mask? The young Spaniards who want to have something of the summer despite the Corona crisis and share a beer on the beach? The health administration?

The called party hung up

Since the Catalan regional government and the Madrid Ministry of Health calculate the number of infected people differently, the health risk of a trip to Barcelona is difficult to express statistically: Madrid only records the tests for the novel that have been positive in the last 24 hours Coronavirus Barcelona itself also registers antibody tests and cases with symptoms compatible with Covid 19 and also includes the unreported cases from previous days.

This leads to considerable differences: the Catalan health authorities reported 969 new infections and eight deaths on Wednesday. The Spanish Ministry, on the other hand, only had 211 new cases for Catalonia. On Thursday, the Ministry of Health’s regional statistics recorded most new infections not in Catalonia, but in Aragon, in the capital Madrid and in the Basque Country – but compared to two weeks, Catalonia is ahead with a total of 10,899 infections. And no matter what number you choose: there is no doubt that the infection curve is increasing in Catalonia. But who is to blame?

For Miquel Porta Serra, epidemiologist at the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, ​​the main reason is clear. He says: “The Catalan regional government’s early detection system has failed dramatically.” The latter initially commissioned a subsidiary of the construction company Ferrovial to track the infection chains for 17 million euros. Anyone who had contact with a person infected with Corona was called by an unknown number and asked first of all for their personal data, the online newspaper describes eldiario.es. Many of the called parties immediately hung up again. In this way, the authorities managed to identify only two contacts per infected person – as little as usually in the Madrid region.

Mockery and ridicule

After hailing criticism from the health sector, the regional government tried to dissolve the contract. Now she wants to hire up to 500 additional people for contact tracking. “The people in charge simply didn’t do what they should have done,” says Porta. Since April, they have known how important it is to keep track of contacts for pandemic control in addition to the tests. But many health centers are only now beginning to train staff. “Better late than never,” says Porta.

While criticism in Catalonia focuses mainly on the management of the crisis by the regional health ministry, conservative Spanish media comment on the flare-up of the pandemic there sometimes with derision and ridicule. Had the Catalan regional government not said in the spring, at the height of the pandemic, that “an independent Catalonia would have killed and infected less”?

The corona crisis is in Spain repeatedly overlaid by political strife. This is no different now than in spring, when the country made headlines worldwide with images of overcrowded intensive care units and dramatic deaths: 28,441 people died in Spain from Covid-19. If the suspected cases are included, it is according to the calculation of the Spanish daily newspaper The country even 44,868, more than in any other European country.

The Spanish think tank Real Instituto Elcano has carried out a study to analyze the reasons for the high number of people infected and killed in Spain. In addition to the age structure of Spanish society, the densely populated cities and holiday regions, the high mobility and the weaknesses of the health system, the political structure also plays a role.

In Spain, the 17 autonomous communities are actually responsible for health care. The regional health authorities coordinate an inter-territorial council with the Ministry of Health in Madrid. With the onset of the alarm, all institutions were placed under the Madrid Ministry of Health. “If you simply convert such a complex system, this naturally leads to difficulties,” says Ignacio Molina, one of the three authors of the study. Since the Madrid Ministry of Health has political power, but hardly any access to the necessary resources and data, misunderstandings, competence disputes, delays were virtually inevitable. “Centralization was not a mistake per se, but the system was simply not geared towards it,” says Molina.

Photo session instead of session

In addition, there was the political conflict – of all things, with Madrid and Catalonia, the two regions most affected by the pandemic. The secessionist Catalan regional government sensed an authoritarian recentralization and “forced administration through the back door” behind the alarm. And in Madrid, the conservative president of the regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, accused Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of negligence. Ayuso hurried a meeting together to pose in front of an airplane with sanitary material for photos.

Epidemiologist Miquel Porta sees both regional governments as deliberately disloyal during the pandemic: “From Madrid and Barcelona, ​​case numbers were sometimes sent to the Spanish Ministry of Health without the required information on age, gender and infection data. It is impossible to have a pandemic to fight effectively if you don’t have reasonable data. ” According to electoral tactics, health policy interests were neglected and scientists and technicians were marginalized. It is, says Porta, “a drama for democracy”.

With the end of the alarm state at the end of June, the competencies for health care fell back to the autonomous regions. Now the political dispute continues under changed circumstances.

Ignacio Molina from the Instituto Real Elcano think tank thinks this is a big problem. In order to guarantee a smoother process between regional health authorities and the central government in the future, governing bodies would have to be reformed. “But given the ongoing political dispute in Spain, this is simply not feasible,” says Molina. He thinks this is fatal because the next wave of infections is bound to come.

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