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In Spain, a Strong Sense of Solidarity Drives Endurance in the Pandemic

The Chamberí District, Madrid, April 27, 2020. The author, a former Argentine foreign minister who is living and working in Madrid, notes the “solitude” of the city at the end of the day, but says that the country has been responding to the pandemic with “solidarity.” SUSANA MALCORRA

MADRID — The first two cases of Covid-19 infections here were identified on Feb. 26, 2020. That day, 23 people had become infected in Spain in less than 24 hours. Three days later, the number was 80. From then on, Madrid rapidly became the city with the most cases in the country, and by March 8, it had more than 200 cases of the approximately 600 infected people in the country. It was also the day in which, as a result of the fast growth in the number of infections, the government of Italy decided to isolate around 16 million people in the northern part of its country.

I would like to stop for a moment on that date, March 8, 2020. I believe that what happened that day is a good indication of the Spanish ethos. It is as well an excellent starting point for my personal reflections on suffering the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in Madrid, where I live and work, as dean of the IE School of Global and Public Affairs. These reflections are strongly influenced by witnessing the effects of that ethos in the daily life of people in this city, now affected by the pandemic.

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to the worldwide celebration of the achievements of women in all fields of human activity. But it is also a day that marks a call to action for both women and men to demonstrate support for the urgent need to accelerate gender equality. Just to reflect on the most salient data from the United Nations, it is a day to say, Stop to the fact that globally, women earn 23 percent less than men; to the reality that women occupy only 24 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide; and to the atrocious statistics that show that 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence and that 200 million women have suffered genital mutilation.

But in 2020, March 8 was a day in which the world was mostly trying to figure out what the Covid-19 could really mean. Uncertainty, fear and negation were starting to pervade the media. However, women and men in Spain — in retrospect, what might have been unwise — massively took to the streets to parade their ideas. About 120,000 people marched that Sunday in Madrid, and similar large demonstrations were happening all over the country. References to the coronavirus could be read in many of the placards held by demonstrators, but they were there.

I believe that this deep commitment to beliefs, combined with a still-prevailing sense of solidarity as a fundamental value that defines being human, form a fundamental key to understanding the situation in Madrid those days.

By March 11, Madrid had close to 1,000 people infected, and the World Health Organization was declaring the Covid-19 crisis a pandemic; two days later, the Spanish government declared the state of alarm — the lowest-degree of state of emergency in Spain — which allowed the government to impose mandatory confinement. These measures, sooner or later, were to be adopted one way or another by most countries in the world. But two important aspects were evident here in the capital.

The first one is that most leaders in Spain, from different areas and different political parties, supported the decisions. Only a very small minority tried to gain political standing by appearing combative in arguing for “liberalization” in the name of economic interest. The second is that the vast majority of the population received the restrictions with a strong sense of responsibility and admiration for those who continued risking their health to support the basic needs of the communities.

At the same time, a significant act of ingenuity enabled a range of activities to be done online, from schools and universities to many types of jobs. The transformation of services included aspects of the free public-health system, such as programs to families who have children with special needs.

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To cite one example: In Spain, all families with children who have special needs are entitled to receive support from the state in two main ways. One is through economic aid, consisting of, among other elements, a reduction in taxes and a direct monthly payment received by the parents. The payment is proportional to the degree of dependency of the child. Of course, this economic support continues in these times with absolute normalcy, although some delays have occurred mostly related to paperwork.

The second type of support is through the regular — usually weekly — sessions with specialized professionals for children with special needs and their parents. The purpose is to help the children to develop their capacities (motor and coordination skills, verbal and communication skills, emotional support and the like) to their optimal level. This service has immediately, and without interruption, been transformed into online support, in which, through video platforms, professionals connect to the homes and direct the parents to conduct the required exercises and other activities.

But in spite of the social support structure that the country still enjoys, it is undeniable that many people suffer an economic effect by the mandated isolation and the sudden halt of many productive activities. Given this situation, on March 17, four days after the declaration of the state of alarm, the government announced a series of measures to help people most affected by the crisis. Among the steps, the one most used is the ERTE (temporary employment regulation file, or expediente de regulación temporaria de empleo, in Spanish).

Under the ERTE methodology, an organization that has ceased to operate because of the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus informs Social Security with a list of employees who are not working. This information is then processed, and the employee begins to get paid by the state a monthly amount of approximately 70 percent of her/his latest taxable salary. There are many other measures, including relief in mortgage payments or delays in tax payments for self-employed people.

As the demand for medical care grew during the early time of the crisis, hospitals became one of the weak points in the system, both in terms of beds and medical equipment and supplies. Mobile field hospitals had to be installed. However, while the percentage of people who have totally recovered after being infected is around 26 percent worldwide, it reached 40 percent in Spain. Perhaps this is a sign that, even after four decades of continuous international bombardment against investment in public systems, Spanish society managed to resist and save, at least partly, an efficient, free public health system.

Still suffering the consequences of an early virus attack and a perhaps too-cautious early response, by early April, Spain was approaching the peak of the calamity, reaching 950 deaths in a day. But things started to improve slowly and, by April 13, 300,000 persons in Madrid were allowed to go back to pre-essential work. Respiratory-protection masks were being distributed free at the entrance of public transportation systems.

Most of Spanish society has reacted to the crisis with responsibility and solidarity. On this basis, on April 16, the government launched a round of consultations to establish a guaranteed minimum monthly income for any person who does not qualify for any of the other government programs for economic help. This consultation is continuing, and the discussion is hot. But the mere fact of allowing such a discussion is an important sign that a large portion of the population favors social cooperation as a way to solve social problems.

It is a very difficult and painful situation, but the values shown by Spanish society awaken the hope that we will emerge from this crisis an improved and more egalitarian community. The values that allowed this type of social behavior are neither new nor strange. They are exactly the values that led 193 countries to unanimously adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on Sept. 25, 2015.

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This essay is part of a series of people working in international affairs relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe. The first essay was written from Vienna, Austria; the second, from Chicago; the third, from Singapore.

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Susana Malcorra was minister of foreign affairs of Argentina from 2015 to 2017. Previously, she held various successive positions at the UN, including chief of staff for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; under secretary-general for field support; and chief operating officer of the World Food Program. She is now dean of the IE School of Global and Public Affairs in Madrid.

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