The vast majority of Spaniards were not really that worried when a German tourist on Gomera in the Canary Islands was diagnosed with the coronavirus on January 31st. Nor when the same disease was diagnosed in a Brit on the island of Majorca on the 9th of February. In fact, at that time many companies thought it was a bit over the top when the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was canceled because of COVID-19. And that’s how Spanish politics viewed it as well. At an informal meeting with a group of Portuguese nationals, Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya is alleged to have said that he thought the concern about “a touch of the flu” was slightly overly exaggerated.
Tens of thousands of football fans on the streets
No, the resolve to take action hadn’t exactly taken off in Spain. While dozens of infections had already been diagnosed in Italy and the coronavirus had claimed its first fatalities, COVID-19 was not yet a hot topic in Spain back on the 19th of February. It was the day that the first game in the 8th finals of the Champions League was played in San Siro between the Atalanta Bergamo and Valencia teams. The Italians won the game in Milan 4-1. They then traveled back to Bergamo together with tens of thousands of ecstatic fans. Valencia went back to Spain with their own fans with their tails between their legs. Not long after that, Bergamo and to a lesser extent Valencia, turned into new hotbeds for COVID-19.
A week later in Madrid the world’s largest club match was scheduled. El clásico between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Trainers, players, and coaches of the Wuhan Zall football club were invited as special guests out of compassion for the stricken Chinese city. Moreover, the coronavirus was seen as a side issue. Fans from all over the world were seated in the stadium. From the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo from the north of Italy to the Dutch GP Jan Landman from Benalmádena, Spain. And from commentator Sierd de Vos from Wijk bij Duurstede in The Netherlands to yours truly from Madrid itself. Not the virus, but goalkeeper Vinicius Junior was the talk of the town that evening.
It got even more insane
Another week later. By now the virus had almost all of Italy in its grip. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the situation simply failed to register in Spain. It was spring and that had to be celebrated. And everyone did that in their own way. One (me, for instance) went to the Atlético Madrid-Sevilla game on Saturday, March 7th. Someone else went to a Camela concert. And afterward, the separate parties (me included) met each other once again on one of the crowded terraces. It got even more insane.
On Sunday evening March 8th 140,000 women and a small number of men (not me) marched through the streets of Madrid as part of a huge feminist rally. No virus had kept them from doing that. Even though the number of confirmed infections was already in the hundreds by then.
‘You won’t see something until you’ve noticed it’
That number subsequently grew at such a rapid rate that the mood started to shift. But the Spanish government still could not be described as proactive. On March 9th it was announced that the schools in Madrid would close. Bars and restaurants remained open. Liverpool was knocked out of the Champions League by Atlético on March 11th in front of a packed stadium, which included thousands of fans from Madrid (I was celebrating at home). Everyone was free to go to the beach with their family. And Spaniards did that en masse. Until the hundreds of infections became thousands and the dozens of deaths became hundreds. On March 14th, a month and a half after the first case, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced an emergency situation. Ever since then, Spain has had the strictest regime in Europe.
High price for intervening too late
Meanwhile, Madrid has turned into a macabre ghost town where hundreds of people are dying every day for weeks on end. There is a lack of everything. From face masks to respiratory equipment. An ice stadium is serving as a morgue. The stock exchange building is now an emergency hospital where thousands of patients are fighting for their lives. It’s a huge price to pay for intervening too late.
The Spaniards kept dancing as long as the music was playing. For weeks on end. It may take a very long time before the music starts playing at full blast again. Weeks? Months? Years? Who knows? Hindsight is a pretty easy thing to have. Strangely enough, more countries are caught off guard by the seriousness and extent of the disaster, even in the wake of China, Italy, and Spain. Perhaps the time-honored Cruiffiaans wisdom (legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruiff was renowned for his quotes, ed.) also applies to the coronavirus: ‘You won’t see something until you’ve noticed it.’
Koen Greven lives in Madrid and is a correspondent for Innovation Origins and the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.