COVID-19 Global Perspective from Spain

Dr. Nathan Bertelsen is an Associate Professor of Medicine with the University of Minnesota. He is currently in Barcelona, Spain where he was teaching a Migrant and Refugee Health in the Mediterranean course through the University of Barcelona. As part of our COVID-19 Global Perspective Series, we reached out to Dr. Bertelsen to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Spain.

What ways has your country's government responded to COVID19 outbreak and pandemic? When did you begin seeing a response?

The first major response was Catalunya issuing its first region-wide announcement to begin closing businesses on 3/13, with the nationwide state of emergency announced the next day, initiating immediately a full lockdown. It was amazing how quickly things went from no response to total lockdown in less than a week. On 3/10 we met at University of Barcelona to shut down our courses there, which was obvious to all of us, but at that time we were still ahead of anything official. Until then, there had been some scattered local lockdowns, similar to Italy. 

How do you anticipate your country's health systems will be impacted? What are you and your institution doing to prepare for COVID19?

The health system is seriously traumatized by this. More than 15,000 health workers are ill and healthcare workers long ago started making their own PPE. Although in Europe, the health care system in Spain was always a bit too informal in many ways, with areas for improvement in standardization of care, quality of training and levels of accountability. The system turned to calling for volunteers very quickly after being overwhelmed. Nonetheless, everyone is demonstrating very sincere efforts to succeed together and camaraderie remains quite high, considering the rapid increase in daily cases and deaths and very intense public lockdown. 

In what ways will your country/city/community be uniquely affected that differs from other places in the world?

Spain now has more cases than Italy and it is still unclear when the peak will come. As anywhere, the enormous toll on the economy is astonishing. Spain had at least 14% unemployment before the crisis, and in March over one million jobs were reported lost out of the nation of 46 million, and the financial losses for everyone is immeasurable. 

What are people doing locally to build support for their most vulnerable community members, neighbors, and family members?

Whatsapp groups are now the main source of community contact. Our daycare group has been sending daily photos of each other's kids, videos of creative activities at home, group zoom calls, encouraging messages, etc. People have been asking around non-stop whenever someone has had a difficult decision or problem to solve. Barcelona already is a very artistic place, and the creative energy is very palpable in both the coping mechanisms and the responses to the crisis.  

What have you seen happen in your community that gives you hope or solidarity for positive outcomes?

Every night at 8pm, everyone stands on their balconies and clap for the workers in health care, supermarkets, pharmacies and few other places still open. It is a very palpable snapshot of Spanish culture and its response.  

Why is it more important now than ever before to collaborate with global partners?

It is already clear that our global world will never be the same. Moving into the next chapter of the unknown, if we do not rebuild our lives in partnership with our global neighbors, then we may never be able to recover from the pressure to remain isolated. We have already been heading toward discrimination and xenophobia for many years as a world, and this COVID crisis is most definitely the formative turning point––either we emerge in a whole new and negative world order, or we harness the passion and rediscovery of community that COVID is inspiring, toward rebuilding a world that is even more inclusive and tolerant than ever. It could go both ways, and the level of fear in political messaging will be the definitive factor. 

COVID-19 Global Perspectives

Our COVID-19 Global Perspectives Series features insights and updates from our global health partners around the world.

Global Perspectives