We find ourselves in a house in a small village outside Huercal Overa in Almeria at a time of great crisis. There was a chain of events and decisions unconnected with Coronavirus which brought us here, but that story is for another time and another letter. The Covid-19 crisis has been growing in Europe and across the world. We moved into this house on the 4th March. I have watched with great concern and fear for you, my dear friends, as I see the British government struggling to get to grips with the issue and keep up with the speed of response that is absolutely required to flatten the curve as per the WHO advice.
At the time of writing, the Covid-19 stats in Spain stand at 33,089 total cases with 2206 deaths and 3355 cases recovered. On the 1st of March, just before we got the keys for this house, there were only 228 cases which were concentrated mainly in and around Madrid. Now as of the 21st March, there are cases in every region though Madrid continues to suffer the most. The press is full of sad stories. A young policeman died having contracted the virus on duty. The virus swamping a nursing home and the stream of ambulances to remove the dead captured on camera. YouTube is full of videos of enthusiastic dancers, silly jokes, singing on balconies and daily cheers for doctors and nurses but this is all a way to cope with the constant anxiety of not being in control and having an invisible enemy that might be carried by you home from the supermarket which could kill your mother or grandfather. I think its probably more stressful to do nothing productive than to be doing something in these strange, horrible days.
Just before the Spanish government agreed the details of a state of emergency on the 15th March, there had been 200 deaths. There was great concern because that weekend, knowing lockdown was coming, people from Madrid travelled to the coasts to their second homes after restrictions were placed in their region. A similar thing happened in Italy. Now, I suspect many Spaniards and Italians, if asked, would regret that lockdown had not been put in place earlier as the news flashes in every day with the rising numbers of sick and dead and we see images of conference centres turning into hospitals with ICU beds.
Watching the UK news yesterday with people going on day trips having been advised to practice social distancing puts me in mind of this same thing but I wonder whether I too would have had a more complacent attitude had I not been here watching the UK through the prism of a lockdown in a country that is 2 weeks ahead of the UK in experience of the Covid-19 curve. It’s certainly surreal, I can tell you that.
But Boris Johnson and his government have done a grave disservice to their country by being dragged kicking and screaming to the point where clear communication and INSTRUCTION is what is need in order to not only flatten the curve but keep health professionals as safe as possible in treating this terrible virus. The UK have wasted so much time, they could have had measures in place a week ago starting in much better shape than Spain in terms of case numbers. WHO report there is no shortage of testing resources either despite hints to the contrary by British politicians.
Basically in Spanish lockdown, all unnecessary movement is removed. The only shops allowed to stay open to the public are food shops, pharmacies, paper shops and kiosks, pet food supplies and hairdressers. People may travel to work. Home deliveries are allowed so online companies can continue and home delivery from takeaways is allowed. You can walk your dog but if you do stay close to your home. A man was fined for walking his dog 3km away from his house. If you are on the street it must only be for the purposes of going to a shop for food, medicine, work, walking a dog or going home. All libraries, bars, museums etc are closed so many people cannot go to work because their place of work is closed anyway. Those who can home work are doing so. You cannot go for a run or a cycle ride. Only one person allowed in a car unless accompanying someone who needs help through disability etc. The lockdown is visibly enforced by police forces and the army. Streets are disinefected from morning until night. The disinfecting truck actually came past us today even though we are in a little village. The mantra of #QuedateEnCasa #StayAtHome is seen on tv and news and on social media. The Government is using social media well to get information out about the virus and the Prime Minister and others are on TV everyday with updates.
In the main I see overwhelming support for these measures. There are many who I think really feel it is their civic duty to protect their families and neighbours and most especially their precious health services. Health care started off well-resourced here and yet hospitals are nevertheless stretched and in the hotspots threaten to be overwhelmed. Of course health care workers constantly in contact with the virus are heavily at risk and many have become sick themselves so making it even more difficult to manage the numbers of critical patients. There was a report of a convention centre being turned into a hospital and private beds have been requisitioned by government. I think everyone here understands now, a week after lockdown, the absolute necessity of buying time. Time for the science to help and the medical provision to be increased. In my area there has been very little evidence of infection but looking at the local Spanish chat pages, support is still strong for the measures. The initial 15 days of lockdown are to be extended to a further 15 days, all opposition parties are in agreement.
It may seem odd for me of all people, someone who has fought tooth and nail to preserve our freedom of movement as a right these last four years, to now be in total agreement with the current lockdown enforced with police presence, but the way I see it, a virus is no respecter of any politics. We really are all in it together although physically we must be apart and we must work together not only to make it through this unprecedented health crisis but protect our way of life afterwards. This virus does threaten the old and those with other conditions the most, but nobody is completely safe, and the health care professionals are also at great risk because of the amount of the virus they will be exposed to as the numbers of ill patients increase. The economic shock this crisis is presenting is another thing which we will continue to need to work together to resolve. The burden will be on everyone to help ease the pain we will continue to feel as we pay the price for flattening the curve.
Although borders are being closed and restrictions on movement imposed here, it has to remain an international collaboration by the science community and by Governments and by Business if they have facilities they can offer to help us come out of the other side of this intact. Here Spanish shoe factories and other fashion manufacturing facilities are repurposing their machines to make masks and other protective equipment to donate to hospitals and police, private hospital beds have been requisitioned for public use and China have donated protective equipment. The EU have created a scheme for members to buy extra ventilators and Italy have had Chinese doctors flying over to help them get through this crisis. Its heartening to see these stories of friendship and human connection.
Yet in contrast I see the UK government has been so slow to heed the advice based on real experience and actual deaths elsewhere. its like watching a tractor in slow motion rolling towards the edge of an abyss The whole disastrous herd immunity modelling nonsense was interpreted by many as carry on as you are as far as I can make out. The lack of clarity and INSTRUCTION on social distancing measures is just dreadful. UK Please listen. Your friends over here are screaming at you to stay at home. The UK had a head start they could have used to impose even a partial lockdown a week ago. instead I see pictures of crammed supermarkets and crowded tube stations and I fear for the stats that will be announced in the coming weeks in those daily news conferences led by a man who looks like he would rather be on the surface of Mars than in front of that microphone.
UK schools are finally shut but not shut yet parents are taking their children to playgrounds. Please just stop. STAY AT HOME. Every day of lockdown you all suffer now is 2 days less in the future and will save lives. In these extraordinary times, making vague recommendations allowing people to choose to do the right things just won’t work. The public are not experts. There will always be disagreement about what is essential travel, who is a key worker. For that reason clear decisions on these questions and then firm instruction is what people need even if it is not what they want. It’s hard but it buys scientists and health services precious time. The scientific consensus around the world is clear on what the strategy should be. We must for a short time lay aside our personal preoccupations as individuals and think what we can do for the community.
So please, listen to other countries. Stay at Home as much as you can to weather this storm. Protect your families and stay safe.
ps. I have seen that the government is putting through an emergency bill grabbing power for up to two years. Neither Spain nor France as far as I know have seen the need to put this 2-year date on their legislation. Spain has used an existing ability in its written constitution to call a state of emergency, but it only lasts for 15 days and must be renewed by agreement in parliament every 15 days. This is as it should be. The state should have no ability to impose such serious measures on people’s liberty for any length of time without consent and regular review and scrutiny. Without that protection lies the path to temptation by men big on ego and miniscule of heart to make themselves the defacto crown prince. Indeed I have to ask the question why would a government who can’t even bring themselves to order pubs to shut down across the country in order to protect pensioners feel they need emergency legislation allowing amongst other things the detention of “sick” foreign people which lasts for 2 years especially when there is already existing legislation to use in an emergency? Odd that.
pps. The British government must now accept that a brexit extension MUST be agreed for at least a year. European (including the UK) energies must remain on fighting covid-19 and recovering from the economic shock it is causing and the havoc it will continue to cause. If our small businesses survive (and believe me its going to be hit and miss whether we will still have a business on the other side of this nightmare), having to then battle through Brexit nonsense in the same year is just going to kill us off once and for all.