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'We didn't pay enough attention to Asia', says Catalan researcher of Covid-19 crisis

Salvador Macip discusses reasons behind pandemic's impact, including the state of the public health system and its management

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01 May 2020 10:29 AM

by

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

Everything seems much clearer with the gift of hindsight, and we now know with far more certainty that some warning signs should have been heeded in order to soften Covid-19's blow in Catalonia.

The pandemic's swift and far-reaching impact came as a shock to residents, who only days before the lockdown was ordered were still going about business as usual with relative normalcy, oblivious to what lied ahead, and not long later, Catalonia became one of Europe's hardest-hit regions.

"In Spain, Italy, in Catalonia, all these countries in southern Europe, we were still not thinking that this was going to be so bad or perhaps were not paying enough attention to what was going on in Asia," argues Salvador Macip, a geneticist and medical researcher at Leicester University who also teaches at Catalonia's Open University (UOC).

Timing, age, management

Macip believes there are multiple reasons beyond "sheer luck," or rather the absence of it, that combined would explain the virus' deadly impact in Catalonia, and that although ultimately more time will be needed to properly assess data from across the globe, a number of hypotheses, including timing, should be considered.

As far as Europe is concerned, the pandemic struck the south first, doing away with valuable time to look into mitigating its effects. "In the south, we were less prepared [compared to other parts of the continent] because when it hit in the north, they had already seen what was going on for 2-3 weeks," Macip asserts.

Not only that, but age could also be an important factor behind Catalonia's staggering coronavirus death toll that includes many care home fatalities as the virus' effects are disproportionately worse among the sick and elderly.

When compared to Germany, on the other hand, many of the central European country's first Covid-19 cases were of young, relatively healthy people, who had returned home from ski trips down south.

Management of the crisis is another element to keep in mind. "It could be that some countries have been more severe in terms of applying things like lockdowns. We've seen countries like Greece, for instance, that seems to have done a pretty good job at keeping people inside their homes," the Catalan researcher explains.

Greece imposed a swift lockdown on March 23, slightly over a week after Spain did. Yet, at the time of implementing it, there were far fewer confirmed cases. As of April 30, the Hellenic country has registered 2,591 Covid-19 diagnoses and 140 fatalities – a shocking contrast when considering western European death tolls.

Re-centralization of the health system

Pedro Sánchez's government's decision to re-centralize the Spanish health system – usually managed by each region or autonomous community – to oversee the ongoing public health crisis caused much discontent in Catalonia, with President Quim Torra voicing criticism on multiple occasions.

Without getting into any possible political or nationalistic motivations that have tinged arguments on the matter in Catalonia and Spain as a whole, Macip concurred with assessments praising the German management of the pandemic.

"I think the Spanish government, perhaps, was not ready or prepared to have centralized control of the crisis because also, just by default, all the power in terms of health is already devolved to the regions, so the fact they tried to re-centralize the power of everything related to health I think is less productive."

"We cannot have a health system that is on the brink of collapse"

Every evening since lockdown was imposed, people throughout Catalonia and Spain have taken to their balconies to applaud the herculean efforts of the country's public health care workers that have been doing their best to keep the system afloat.

It is also well known that Spain suffered tremendously due to the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures, including significant cuts to the public health system described by Amnesty International as "cruel."

"We cannot have a health system that is on the brink of collapse," Macip argues. "What they did with the cuts is basically scale down to as much as the system can take."

But perhaps, as Macip contends, the direness of the coronavirus pandemic will convince people of the importance of bolstering and protecting the public health system: "I think this now proves that we should not be playing with that - that cuts to the health system can be detrimental to the whole population if a crisis happens, and a crisis can happen at any time."

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  • Image of the Catalan researcher Salvador Macip in the lab (by Yolanda Porter/macip.org)

  • Image of the Catalan researcher Salvador Macip in the lab (by Yolanda Porter/macip.org)

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