Spain lifts lockdown after 98 days to enter a ‘new normality’

A group of tourists from the Netherlands wear face masks as they arrive at the airport in Seville, aboard the first tourist flight after lifting the State of Emergency and lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Seville, Andalusia, Spain, 21 June 2020. [ EPA-EFE/JOSE MANUEL VIDAL]

Spain’s state of alarm, the emergency mechanism propping up the nationwide lockdown enforced to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, expired at midnight on Saturday (20 June), three months and one week after it first came into effect.

From Sunday, Spain entered what politicians around the world have billed the “new normality.” The state of alarm will be lifted but social-distancing, hygiene protocol and obligatory mask use will remain in force until a vaccine for COVID-19 is found.

With the gradual easing of restrictions several weeks ago, life has already slowly returned to the streets, squares, shops, highways, factories, offices, bars and beaches up and down the country.

But it has been an unprecedented situation in the country’s history, as residents battened down the hatches for 98 days and watched developments unfold.

On 14 March, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government turned to the constitution to enact the state of alarm. It was only the second time in Spain’s modern democratic era that such an extraordinary move had been deemed necessary.

Back in 2010, the government took similar measures during the air traffic controllers’ strike, but the emergency mechanism only lasted 15 days.

The COVID-19 state of alarm was also initially imposed for 15 days but was eventually extended six times.

How it all began

Spanish health authorities are now certain coronavirus has been circulating in the country’s population well before February.

But from the time the first official case was reported on 31 January until the following month, the expert advice to the general public had been to observe stricter hygiene protocol and little else.

It remained this way until 9 March, one day after the crowded International Women’s Day March in Madrid.

At this point, alarm bells began to ring as the number of infections doubled to 1,204 nationwide and the number of fatalities climbed to 28.

That day ushered in the early indications of what was to come, as the government ordered a two-week closure of schools and urged employees to work at home where possible.

The measures, in the words of health minister Salvador Illa, were designed to avoid “a scenario like Italy” which had been devastated by the virus and imposed strict confinement measures.

But it didn’t work. COVID-19 had already taken hold and on 14 March, following a long and historic cabinet meeting, the government declared the state of alarm.

By this time, the virus had infected 5,753 people and killed 136, according to official figures.

Fatalities and over-stretched hospitals

The figures at this point in time were already overwhelming but the worst was yet to come.

Little over a week later, the number of daily deaths reported by the government were into the hundreds and three weeks later, they approached 1,000, peaking at 950 in a single 24-hour period.

This occurred on 2 April, by which time 10,003 deaths had been reported since the beginning of the outbreak.

It was more than Spain’s funerary services could handle and authorities had to improvise.

In Madrid, authorities set up a makeshift morgue in one of the capital’s ice rinks. Hospitals were also struggling to stay afloat.

Every day the country woke up hoping there would be signs that the curve of infections had begun to flatten.

Hospitals were admitting hundreds of COVID-19 patients a day, including significant numbers of medical staff.

There was a general lack of resources and protective equipment fast-tracked into the country was often faulty or below standard.

By requisitioning private centres, turning hotels into medical centres and erecting field hospitals, Spain’s public health system narrowly avoided collapse.

But the system and the country’s health workers are still reeling from the pandemic.

Care homes

One of the darkest periods of the lockdown took place in Spain’s care home facilities, where COVID-19 exposed a health care model that failed its vulnerable residents.

Roughly 20,000 of Spain’s COVID-19 fatalities involved people over the age of 60.

Car home residents who survived the outbreak were subjected to horrifying experiences, confined to their rooms alone without the possibility of seeing family or friends.

Many families were unable to bid farewell or attend the funerals of older loved ones.

There are now at least 200 investigations being carried out by prosecutors, almost half in Madrid alone, as families of coronavirus victims challenge the legality of the extraordinary situation in the courts.

Economic hibernation

The state of alarm was immediately felt in the Spanish economy as the whole country — aside from essential workers – was asked to stay at home.

Production and consumption dropped, while unemployment soared.

On 30 March, as COVID-19 cases began to peak, the government ordered a further toughening of the lockdown, ordered all non-essential activity such as construction to cease until 9 April.

Between March and April, some 900,000 jobs were lost and 3.3 million people were placed onto the largely government-funded temporary lay-off scheme (Erte).

Employment is now starting to slowly recover with the resumption of economic activity and the Erte system remains in place but the safety nets were never going to be able to shield one of the most important sectors for Spain — tourism, which accounts for 12% of its GDP.

The country is due to lift its border restrictions with the EU on 21 June, although Portugal and third party nations will have to wait until 1 July.

The economic downturn was rapid, and although there are some experts who hope this means the recovery can be equally as fast, the government anticipates an uphill battle to get the country back on its feet.

There are loud calls for the health system to be further reinforced to protect it from any further pandemics of this sort. The virus is still active in the country and the government has warned people not to let their guard down.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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