Coronavirus in Spain: Whose fault is that?

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

Everywhere in Spain new corona infection foci are currently emerging: according to the Ministry of Health, there are more than 400 local outbreaks of the pandemic. The situation seems particularly dramatic in Catalonia. The health authorities there are warning that the situation is critical. Although the number of patients in intensive care is not yet rising significantly, the number of patients in health centres is already four times higher than in the last week of June. The Federal Foreign Office advises against travelling to Catalonia – holidays on the Costa Brava and the city trip to Barcelona are cancelled.

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, accounting for twelve percent of economic output. The regional government is therefore making efforts to limit the damage. At a press conference, its President Quim Torra first made an urgent appeal to the population to avoid social contacts and stay at home as much as possible. He then addressed the press in English and promoted Catalonia as a safe holiday 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 fell out of sight: the tourists, who partly stroll through the streets without masks? The young Spaniards who, despite the Corona crisis, still want something from the summer and share a beer on the beach? The health administration?

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

This leads to sometimes considerable differences: on Wednesday the Catalan health authorities reported 969 new infections and eight deaths. The Spanish ministry, on the other hand, reported only 211 new cases for Catalonia. On Thursday, the regional statistics of the Ministry of Health recorded the most new cases of infection not in Catalonia but in Aragón, the capital Madrid and the Basque Country – but in comparison over two weeks Catalonia leads with a total of 10,899 infections. And no matter which number you choose: it is undisputed that the infection curve in Catalonia is rising. 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 early detection system of the Catalan regional government has failed dramatically.” The government had initially commissioned a subsidiary of the construction company Ferrovial for 17 million euros to trace the chains of infection. The online newspaper reports that anyone who had contact with a corona infected person was called by an unknown number and asked for his or her personal data. Many of those called hung up immediately. The authorities were thus able to identify only two contacts per infected person – the lowest number of contacts in the Madrid region.

After receiving criticism from the health sector, the regional government tried to terminate the contract. Now it wants to employ up to 500 additional people for contact tracing. “Those responsible simply didn\’t do what they should have done,” says Porta. But since April, Porta says, they have known since then how important contact tracing is for pandemic control, in addition to the tests. But many health centers are only now beginning to train their staff. “Better late than never,” says Porta.

While in Catalonia criticism focuses primarily on the management of the crisis by the regional health ministry, conservative Spanish media comment on the resurgence of the pandemic there, sometimes with scorn and derision. Didn\’t the Catalan regional government claim in the spring, at the height of the pandemic, that there would have been fewer deaths and fewer people infected in an “independent Catalonia”?

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