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Not Funny: Coronavirus Gets Last Laugh in Spain

Government and media were ridiculing people and encouraging participation in big gatherings. Now it is a pandemic hotspot.

A woman wearing a protective mask and gloves leaves La Paz Hospital on March 11, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

As of Wednesday night, Italy is in chaos, as if they were at war. They’ve counted 1,800 new sick people in one day, more than 12,000 total infected and more than 800 dead; they’ve seen food shortages and prison riots with mass escapes and several deaths.

Spain is has experiencing more than 2,000 cases and nearly 50 deaths as of Wednesday, making it the new health concern hotspot in Europe, along with France, where 33 people have already died and more than 1,700 are infected. Even the French minister of culture, Franck Riester, has tested positive for coronavirus. The stock exchanges have collapsed amid a gloomy atmosphere reminiscent of 2008.

This is more than just the common flu.

The evidence in China shows that with drastic measures, it is possible to stop the coronavirus. Evidence in Mediterranean Europe, meanwhile, shows that minimizing the threat is a mistake that could carry catastrophic consequences for both public health and the economy. Donald Trump has an advantage: Europe can be his guinea pig, but he needs to pay attention and learn from its mistakes. He seemed to recognize that when he announced a travel ban from Europe Wednesday night.

I repeat: the coronavirus is not the flu. The problem is not collective hysteria but the absence of precautions and sensible decisions by those in power.

Only a week ago, we Spaniards, oblivious to any drama, peeked out of the corners of our eyes at Italy. They already had 1,717 cases of coronavirus. When the Italians began to take measures, the Germans, Swiss, and French followed in their stead to try to anticipate the virus’s spread. But not the Spanish government. They promoted mass citizen participation in events such as the March 8 feminist demonstrations and insisted that there was no reason for alarm. (No reason? Having a government of socialists and communists is reason enough to live in constant panic.)

For the past week, pro-government Spanish journalists have ridiculed the drastic measures of other countries and chanted that pernicious mantra: “the coronavirus is nothing but a flu.” And so, while Italy, Iran, France, Germany, Switzerland, South Korea, and Japan decreed important bans and urged their citizens to avoid rallies and take extreme precautions, the Spanish government threw protesters into the streets while millions of people maintained their travel plans and social gatherings.

On Sunday, as I watched the packed feminist march in Madrid, I suspected something terrible might happen. The Spanish government led the Spaniards to believe that, for some mysterious reason, perhaps associated with the magical properties of our red wine, we were immune to this virus. And according to official reports, we were, but only until the first minute after the end of the last feminist march. Then they admitted we didn’t have 374 coronavirus cases but in fact more than 1,200, an evolving disaster equal to or worse than the Italian one.

On Monday morning, the Spanish government was still paralyzed, overwhelmed, and so no measures were being taken. My sources at La Moncloa suggested the obvious: that “any restrictive measure would have too great an impact on the economy, tourism and work.” So what? The same applies to being bombed by an enemy during the course of war, and surely we wouldn’t dream of not defending ourselves by any means necessary.

The region of Madrid, being the most affected and under a conservative government, decided to close all schools and universities until further notice. It was only on Monday night that the central government admitted the gravity of the situation and “announced that it will announce” new measures.

In short, what Spain, and other southern European countries before it, have done is a good example of what not to do: denying the seriousness of the pandemic, comparing the coronavirus to a flu or cold, slowing down reports of infected and deaths for partisan interests, staying paralyzed for days, suggesting that as soon as the temperatures rise the virus will end, refusing to suspend demonstrations and festivals, only to finally admit that everything has gotten out of hand—which then causes three times as much hysteria as if they had only told the truth from the beginning.

Why isn’t the coronavirus a flu? To begin with, because we know little to nothing about it, nor about its transmission. Many have already developed immunity to the common flu but no one is immune to the coronavirus. According to the WHO, with the little data currently available, 3.4 percent of those infected with coronavirus die, compared to less than 1 percent with the flu. And of course, the flu has a vaccine and COVID-19 does not yet.

Let’s look at it another way. Tears, anxiety attacks…that’s how Italian doctors are experiencing the outbreak. Does the flu cause this reaction in professionals who have seen pretty much everything in their hospitals over decades? A couple days ago, Italian doctors from the University of Milan sent a letter to the European Society of Intensive Care Medicine warning how complicated it was for them to treat patients with coronavirus. They gave this advice to other countries: “Increase your total ICU capacity. Identify early on, hospitals that can manage the initial surge in a safe way. Get ready to prepare ICU areas where to cohort Covid-19 patients – in every hospital if necessary.”

Today there is even more painful news out of Italy: with overcrowded ICUs, doctors are having to choose which patients to prioritize. “Like in a war, we have to choose who to save,” says anesthesiologist Christian Salaroli, from a hospital near Milan, who decided to speak in the Corriere della Sera because, in his opinion, “the vast majority of Italians do not know the seriousness of what is happening in the hospitals.” Salaroli gives only one piece of advice: “Don’t leave the house, it is the only way to contain the spread.”

The United States should be paying special attention to Europe, because although it is China that is leading the way in this battle, American society is more like Europe’s. It is true that the Chinese have managed to stop the coronavirus, or so it seems, by preventative measures forcefully imposed, but China is a dictatorship where the alternative to disobedience is death, and the Chinese are tremendously disciplined. Elevators with yellow marks on the floor to delimit the only four places people can stand to avoid friction? Only in Beijing. Try doing that in Iran and you’ll get crowds taking selfies and licking the elevator floor, like the Shiite clerics who actually did that in Qom, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Islamic Republic. They were trying to prove that the coronavirus is only for infidels, I guess.

Halfway between Iranian madness and Chinese dictatorship, in the Christian West, we’re reminded that while God can do anything, there’s no need to test his power for the pleasure of dying young. Let us not forget that our God saves a repentant sinner before a stubborn idiot. So it’s better to prepare and take steps today, recognize that we are facing an exceptional crisis. In the end, we want to avoid becoming the next butt of a joke like the one circulating in Spain today: “the health minister is a Catalan Socialist. We’ll see how long before he takes sides with the virus.”

Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author. He has written nine books and is a contributor to The Daily Beast, The Daily Caller, National Review, The Federalist, and Diario Las Américas, as well as several Spanish magazines and newspapers. He was also an advisor to the Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports in Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @itxudiaz or visit his website www.itxudiaz.com. This piece was translated by Joel Dalmau.

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