by- Giles Tremlett for The Guardian 23 March 2020
Yesterday in the small Spanish country town where I go to fill up my water supply, an ambulance with flashing lights went up the deserted main street. Two municipal police cars followed it slowly, making it look already like a funeral procession. Only three other people were out, and two of them were wearing face masks.
When I first saw pictures like this from China and Iran, for some reason, I didn’t take seriously that it would also happen in Spain – my home for the past 25 years. It wasn’t just me who thought this, many politicians and experts were saying the same.
How wrong we were. Italy has overtaken China, becoming the country with the greatest number of deaths in the pandemic. Spain took third place from Iran yesterday, and will likely take only three days to move ahead of China. Little surprise, then, that the government has now extended our almost total lockdown to a full month.
Ideas of cultural or national superiority are the greatest risk factor of all at a time like this. Nowhere is that a more serious danger right now than in the United Kingdom and the United States – two countries especially prone to such delusions.
In fact, watching the UK from a distance has felt like scrambling out of your car at the front of a multiple pile-up on the motorway, only to see other cars smashing into the rear 20 minutes later. Didn’t anyone warn them about what lay ahead? Surely everyone knew. That is what it looks like from mainland Europe – the new centre of the pandemic.
If you think that what is happening in southern Europe is a result of corruption, incompetence, lower household income or poor public health systems, then you are fooling yourself. All the signs suggest that the UK and the US are heading in exactly the same direction. Both countries are just a week or so behind.
Italy put in place some of the most stringent travel regulations against China, well before most of the rest of Europe. It has more hospital beds per capita than the US. Spain has one of the healthiest populations and longest lifespans in the world. Its health professionals are good enough to provide a considerable part of the NHS workforce. Spain does not have an especially elderly population either – the over-65s account for just 1% point more than the UK.
From my remote country house, a long way from my elderly neighbours, I have been viewing the daily briefings by Boris Johnson and his advisers with a mixture of incredulity and occasional admiration. How can they be so sure that their approach of managing and mitigating the flow of the pandemic – hardly used by anyone else – is right?
The health experts sound convinced, but Boris Johnson’s air-punching promises about “turning the tide” remind me of King Cnut. There are other recognisable and worrying elements. The UK government’s reaction chimes too easily with Johnson’s “sceptered isle” nationalism and blitz-style nostalgia. It also fits the “wild card” thinking of Dominic Cummings. Donald Trump and his cheerleaders, meanwhile, appear convinced that America’s “greatness” will itself provide a magical coat of protection.
Politicians and experts must make hard choices – and they may still be right. I certainly hope so. Yet hubris, in this case, will be paid for in lives.
If the rest of the world looks upon the UK’s coronavirus planning with skepticism, that is because it is a clear outlier. A plucky nation boldly going its own way is a perfectly reasonable pitch for Brexit. It does not sound so convincing during a pandemic.
Commentators in Spanish newspapers and on the radio are aghast. “They are putting us all in danger,” warned a group of Spanish scientists in eldiario.es. French ministers were talking about a special ban on people from the UK.
The British “herd immunity” model (which the government has since pivoted on) was certainly not embraced by countries in Asia, which have been spectacularly successful at stopping the virus so far. They must be looking at Europe and the US with utter bewilderment.
Trump calls this a “Chinese” pandemic, but it will probably take more lives in both the US and the UK than in China itself. Yet these two higher income countries, with much smaller populations, had many more months to prepare.
Spain failed to implement early widespread testing (and is only just starting), but at least we are 10 days into our month-long lockdown. That terrifying daily leap of a third in the number of deaths will have begun to flatten out before that period ends. The UK, however, has already had more deaths than when Spain (or China) went into quarantine – and it still has not fully locked itself down.
Recently, my neighbours in Madrid called me to tell of police vans patrolling the streets, loudspeakers blaring, reminding people to stay indoors. For all the madrileño capacity for resistance (and a three-year siege during the Spanish civil war surely matches the blitz spirit), it is grim. So, too, was that ambulance going up the street.
And yet I find myself more worried for family and friends in the UK and the US than for those of us here in Spain. You are just behind us. You, too, may soon overtake Iran and China. When this is all over, we will count the dead and discover which governments did the best job of protecting their people. Ideas of national superiority will have to be buried with them.
• Giles Tremlett is a journalist and author based in Madrid