By Martin Arostegui
Spain is reeling under the onslaught of the coronavirus, with fatalities surpassing those of China, the health system collapsing and retirement homes becoming open graves.
Hospitals are running out of critical supplies, and about a third of medical staff have been contaminated by the highly contagious virus, carried by tens of thousands of infected people cramming clinics in Madrid, Barcelona and other large cities.
“Intensive care units and hospitals are on the verge of collapse,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told Congress on Wednesday evening, when he asked for his emergency powers to be extended until April 12.
He also asked Congress for $350 billion in emergency funding to confront the crisis and cushion the country against the economic consequences of confining people to their homes for a month.
The government expects three months of economic paralysis, which could cause a 9.7% drop in GDP this year and a 10% rise in its deficit, according to Goldman Sachs.
“There are more dark and uncertain days ahead,” Sanchez said before an almost empty congressional chamber. Most lawmakers could not attend because of quarantines and other travel restrictions. Several leading ministers have caught the virus.
Spain’s coronavirus cases have risen to 48,000 this week, according to the health ministry. But Social Security Minister Jose Luis Escriva has said that almost twice that number could yet be infected, as there are 83,000 workers reporting coronavirus symptoms who have not yet been diagnosed.
Twenty-five percent of hospital workers have contracted coronavirus, according to the health ministry, which reports that 5,400 medical staff have been contaminated on an accelerating scale, with 2,000 falling ill in the past two days.
Patients are being neglected at Madrid’s Gregorio Marañon hospital, where videos broadcast over national television have shown patients strewn across the floor. A nurse at the hospital told reporters that they are out of essential supplies and that she and other medical staff are using garbage bags as protective gowns.
Despite overstretched resources, health workers in Spain have managed to cure more than 5,000 coronavirus patients, who have been discharged, according to the health ministry.
The daily death toll was reported to be dropping Thursday, although Spain’s deaths have surpassed the 4,000 mark, well above the 3,200 reported in China, according to a tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Italy remains the worst-hit country with more than 8,000 fatalities and more than 80,000 confirmed cases, almost equal to China’s figure.
Coronavirus deaths have mostly struck people older than 70, considered the most vulnerable age group. Military emergency teams inspecting retirement homes in Madrid and other cities have found them abandoned by staff and with most of the residents dead in their beds.
“Survivors mingled among cadavers,” an army officer told reporters.
Army engineering units have set up field hospitals in parks and turned empty warehouses, fair pavilions and other public spaces into makeshift clinics to relieve the overcrowded hospitals.
This has led to ugly scenes in some neighborhoods, where protests have erupted over the busing-in of potentially contaminated people. A youth gang in the city of La Linea, which has until now been a zone of low contamination, fought police in an attempt to block buses bringing groups of elderly citizens from badly hit regions.
In a first-ever electronic vote, Congress unanimously passed the 15-day extension of emergency powers and funding requested by the government. But Sanchez faced strong criticism from opposition parties, which accused his administration of “dithering” and being late to act despite clear warning signs from health experts weeks before the pandemic broke out.
Far-right leader Santiago Abascal held separatist authorities in Catalonia responsible for the spiraling number of coronavirus cases reported in Barcelona, where they tried to block a deployment of the army.