EU Affairs

Spain and Italy: In the Eye of the Storm

Coronavirus: Spain is the second most affected European country after Italy. Since Saturday, Spain has been in state of alert, with 47 million people in domestic quarantine. Our colleague Rahel Zibner describes her personal impressions, from our Madrid office.


Coronavirus: Spain is the second most affected European country after Italy. Since Saturday, Spain has been in state of alert, with 47 million people in domestic quarantine. Our colleague Rahel Zibner describes her personal impressions, from our Madrid office.


There I sit now – locked up in the house. In my small apartment I feel like I’m in a safe boat, while outside a storm is raging. How long will it take before the comforting feeling of security turns into frustration at being locked up? The fact is, I am taken by surprise by the speed with which the corona virus has swept over Spain. For a long time there were only a few cases in the country, the pandemic from China seemed far away. Even when the number of cases in neighbouring Italy skyrocketed, people in Spain seemed relaxed. But a virus does not care about national borders. Within a few days, the wind shifted. The small Chinese shops in our street were the first to close; shortly afterwards all bars and restaurants were closed by decree. Schools, universities, libraries and sports facilities as well. On the street, every conversation revolves around just one topic and rumors circulate that the whole city will be closed down soon. The British press headlines “Spain in pain” and advises against travelling to Spain. I also get nervous and check out live tickers and world maps of the COVID 19 outbreak. I don’t really feel any fear. Rather an unbelieving excitement; I have never experienced such a surreal situation before. I feel like in the wrong film. I start to keep my distance to strangers and wear gloves. And I find myself storing food like an American “prepper” for emergencies. Then it happens: Suddenly there are cases not only on TV but in my personal environment. The virus is here.

The coronavirus is sweeping over Spain like a hurricane. The number of people infected is skyrocketing. Every hour the number of cases is being revised up, there are 1,500 cases in the last 24 hours. Madrid is the epicenter, with 3,544 cases and three out of four deaths. Catalonia follows with 715; the Basque Country with 630 and Andalusia with 437 cases (as of 15.03.2020). Across the country, 7,753 infections have been recorded to date and there are no signs that the situation could ease. On the contrary, mortality has been on a clear upward trend for days and is now over 6%. It is the same trend to which Italy has been exposed in the last ten days. Equally drastic measures are being introduced: On Saturday, after an intense seven-hour crisis meeting, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared state of alert and a 15-day curfew. Only necessary purchases, visits to pharmacies and journeys to work or for the care of relatives are exempt. The police patrols and imposes fines if someone is on the road without good reason. The public life and transport system is at a standstill; Madrid resembles a ghost town.

The economic effects are felt after only a few days: my boyfriend lost his job in a restaurant, because it cannot survive without guests. The pandemic is already a catastrophe for the restaurant industry and the tourism sector, which is so important for the country. As a result of the containment measures and uncertainty, supply chains are failing and demand is collapsing. The Spanish think tank EsadeEcPol, headed by Toni Roldán, warns of the risk of a deep recession in Spain as in the rest of Europe. Its demography and dependence on the service sector and tourism make Spain particularly vulnerable and could lead to a situation similar to that during the euro crisis ten years ago. Immediate, targeted emergency measures are therefore urgently needed to cushion the dramatic consequences for the economy. For example, liquidity aid could save companies from bankruptcy and protect employees from unjustified redundancies.


“Tutto andrá bene” – The Situation in Italy

Italy is attempting to save its economy, which has largely come to a standstill, from collapse with a 25-billion-euro programme. The coronavirus is still spreading inexorably throughout the country, with more than 20,000 cases reported and almost 2,000 deaths. Initially, the north of the country was mainly affected and therefore sealed off. However, the information leaked to the media before it came into effect, and masses of people tried to escape to southern Italy before the closure. The Italian government decree of 9 March quarantined the whole country and closed all shops, restaurants, cafés and bars. The Series A matches were cancelled. Nevertheless, the mood is surprisingly calm. In Italy, family sticks together and so does the whole country. Even the governing coalition under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, consisting of 5 stars and Partito Democratico, is able to act during the crisis and agree on measures to fight the infection. This is quite paradoxical, since the political leadership in the country is otherwise chronically divided and the country is politically paralysed. Experience in Italy shows: act decisively – immediately! – is the credo in the coronavirus crisis. A storm warning for Germany. The virus wave is affecting us all, albeit with a time lag. I’m feeling the force of it myself in Spain right now.

In an everyday life in which any social contact must be avoided, the Internet offers the only possibility to exchange information. In social networks, videos of singing people on balconies are circulating in Italy and I too experience my first flash mob in Madrid: When I stepped outside on Saturday evening, startled by the noise, people in my street stood on their balconies and clapped their hands. The applause is dedicated to the doctors and nurses in the hospitals. A beautiful gesture, a feeling of community rose in me. When the city fell silent again, I got back into my apartment, into my boat. How I would love to get off the boat now and take a little walk on land through the surrounding streets! I quickly dismissed the thought again. For containment to succeed, the personal responsibility of each individual is essential. I encourage myself and think of the widespread Italian hashtag #tutto andra bene – everything will be fine.



Rahel Zibner

Project assistant for Spain, Italy and Portugal at FNF Madrid.