A year of Covid-19 in Catalonia: where are we now?

Society must still contend with pandemic’s lingering effects on economy, employment and health

A staff member in Barcelona's Hospital Clínic ICU puts on protective gloves (Francisco Àvia/Hospital Clínic)
A staff member in Barcelona's Hospital Clínic ICU puts on protective gloves (Francisco Àvia/Hospital Clínic) / ACN

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

March 14, 2021 11:41 AM

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of Spain’s first Covid-19 state of alarm, an event now firmly seared into the collective memory of millions of people. Invoked by Spanish president Pedro Sánchez on March 14, 2020 after weeks of increasingly worrying developments, residents were sent into an extremely strict lockdown only to emerge months later, weary and exhausted. 

As we enter the second year of a pandemic that has already caused over 21,000 casualties in Catalonia alone, society must still contend with the lingering effects of the ever-present health crisis.

Unemployment and furloughs

Catalonia’s unemployment rate over the last quarter of 2020 was 13.9%—up from the 10.4% recorded exactly a year earlier. Although Catalonia has fared somewhat better than Spain as a whole, where unemployment levels hit 16.1%, it is still well above the European Union average of 8.1%. In February, Catalonia was home to over half a million jobless or what is the equivalent of 29.62% more people compared to the same month in 2020. 

These figures, however, offer only a partial image of Covid-19’s devastating economic blow as the nearly 200,000 people affected by temporary redundancy schemes (known as ERTOs in Catalan) are not officially out of work although their incomes have dipped, sometimes significantly. Late unemployment and furlough payments have further aggravated the situation, leaving many struggling to make ends meet. 

Economic activity and Covid-19

Why Covid-19 has been more damaging to Catalonia’s economy, which contracted by a staggering 11.4% last year, than elsewhere in Europe is, perhaps, not that hard to understand. 

For one, the tourism industry usually accounts for over 12% of Catalonia’s GDP. When travel restrictions are enforced to curb the spread of a deadly virus, it is not only a disease that is contained but leisurely travel as well. 

In Barcelona alone, which on a normal year hosts around 12 million visitors, tourism dropped by 80% between March and December 2020. This lack of visitors throughout 2020 has cost the economy some 25 billion euros and 90,000 jobs, the Catalan government estimates, as well as a GDP reduction of between 1.5 and 2.9%.

But, while a significant factor, Catalonia’s economic woes cannot be attributed to its heavy reliance on tourism alone. Other businesses, especially in the construction and services sectors, have seen their activity severely curtailed throughout the year by measures intended to keep Covid-19 at bay. And even amongst those that have managed to stay afloat after a tumultuous year, many have been forced to cut down on staff, including the over 50% of bars and restaurants that had to do so over the third quarter of 2020, according to the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce.

Exposing the cracks in the health system

According to Amnesty International, years of austerity left Catalonia’s public health system ill-equipped and unprepared to handle a pandemic that has disproportionately affected women, the elderly, migrants, and patients with chronic illnesses or mental disorders.

For one, Spain has far fewer primary care physicians per inhabitant than other European countries. For every 1,000 residents, Spain has 0.77 primary care doctors compared to Portugal’s 2.6, Ireland’s 1.82, the Netherlands’ 1.61, Austria’s 1.56, and France’s 1.42—the proportion of nurses is even smaller: 0.66 for every thousand people.

Because overall mortality over the past year exceeds official Covid-19 deaths, this suggests both an underreported number of coronavirus fatalities as well as an increase in those due to other causes that could have possibly been prevented had the health system had the capacity to treat them. 

This phenomenon, unfortunately, will have long-lasting consequences: cancer diagnoses in Catalonia dropped by 12% last year. "It's not that the diseases have disappeared, but that they are not being diagnosed," warns Dr. Josep Tabernero, who heads the oncology department at Barcelona’s Vall d'Hebron hospital.

Mental health: a symptom of the pandemic

A year of Covid-related anguish, fear, isolation, and anxiety has most definitely taken a toll on mental health

This is as true for medical professionals, who have been at the frontlines of the crisis—almost half of them, a study found, are at a high risk of mental health issues and 1 in 4 have considered quitting—as it is for pregnant women or victims of gender-based violence and even society as a whole: according to a CIS poll, 23.4% of people in Spain have been scared of dying of Covid-19 and slightly over a third admitted crying over the pandemic.