Granada, Spain – In mid-March, Spain and Portugal both declared states of emergency, just a few days apart, to step up their fights against the coronavirus pandemic. But one month later, the two countries of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula seem to be facing very different situations.
The full extent of the pandemic in both countries, as is the case with most nations worldwide, has yet to be established. But there is a striking difference between Thursday’s total of 182,816 registered infections in Spain – the highest in Europe – and the coronavirus toll in Portugal, which, despite having around a fifth of Spain’s population, had 18,841 infections as of Friday, roughly a tenth of Spain’s number.
The contrast is much more stark when it comes to death tolls. Spain’s total confirmed coronavirus deaths reached 9,130 on Thursday. Portugal had registered just 629 by Friday – three percent of its neighbour’s fatalities. Socially and culturally at least, Portugal and Spain are often credited with having more in common than just a 1,200 kilometre (745-mile) border and currently having a centre-left government in power.
Attempting to grasp why the two neighbouring nations’ fortunes in the coronavirus battle have varied so greatly – at least from what limited data we have – is not straightforward, or 100 percent certain.
“The most important point to raise is that the first registered case in Portugal was a month later than the first case in Spain: March 2 versus January 31,” argues Guillermo Martínez de Tejada de Garaizabal, professor of microbiology and parasitology at the University of Navarra in northern Spain.
“In fact, Portugal was the last country in Europe to register its first case of COVID-19. That gave the Portuguese an enormous advantage over the Spanish. They could thoroughly prepare their containment strategy regarding the pandemic,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We also have to applaud the rapid, decisive action by the Portuguese government, which decreed a total lockdown when it only had a handful of cases,” he said.
Portugal had just over 100 confirmed cases when restrictions on movement were put into place.
“Spain, on the other hand, took that decision at almost the same point [in time] as Portugal, when it had more than 5,000 cases and 133 deaths. Without any doubt, that was key in Portugal’s obtaining such low levels of mortality.”
Manuel Carvalho, director of Publico, one of Portugal’s best-selling daily newspapers, agrees.
“The fight against coronavirus has had quite good results mainly because the government acted quickly,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Schools were closed around 12 days after the first case and the state of emergency declared 14 days after.”
To gain that kind of 'community spirit' reaction, the consensus between political parties, the government and the president was very important.
Highlighting a positive grassroots nationwide reaction to the lockdown, Carvalho continued: “To gain that kind of ‘community spirit’ reaction, the consensus between political parties, the government and the president was very important.
“Rui Rio, the leader of the main opposition party, the PSD [Social Democratic Party], said ‘we are not going to cause problems for the country just to cause problems for the government’.”
Carvalho contrasts that attitude with the situation in Spain, where “the government’s main ally, Podemos, are seen by the main opposition party, the Partido Popular [PP], as radical extremists”.
Yet across the border, and despite a poll showing 87 percent of Spaniards believe the opposition parties should drop their criticism of the government, as the crisis deepens, the political divisions show no sign of lessening.
On Thursday, Pablo Casado, head of the PP, accused Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of “only caring about power, while we only care about Spain”. He then postponed attending the government’s cross-party talks on a united front for the coronavirus crisis until at least next week.
And Spain’s hard-right party, Vox – the country’s third-largest parliamentary grouping – accused Sanchez of “imposing a totalitarian Communist regime”, and refused point-blank to attend the talks.
Meanwhile, Madrid’s long-troubled relationship with the Catalan separatists, which dominated the political agenda prior to the coronavirus crisis, rumbles on. Recent bones of contention range from Catalan president Quim Torra’s serious reticence over the relaxing of lockdown for non-essential workers to a protest from the region’s interior minister, Miquel Buch, over Spain sending exactly 1,714,000 face masks to Catalonia – which he claimed could be a deliberate coincidence with the defeat of separatist forces in Barcelona back in 1714. “Don’t play with our history,” Buch snarled in a press conference on Monday.
“Over the past three or four years there’s been an increasing fragmentation both of the Spanish regions and politics in general,” notes Jose Hernandez, assistant professor of sociology and a specialist in social health policies at the University of Cordoba in southern Spain. “So now, rather than trying to build consensus, the rival parties are trying to wear each other out.
“Also, this is a minority government with fragile parliamentary support, and which lost votes in Spain’s last elections – unlike in Portugal, where the ruling party was strengthened in the most recent ballot. So it tends to impose measures, rather than risk negotiations it might lose. That lack of consultation only fuels the opposition’s anger.”
On the medical front, the courage and resilience of Spain’s health workers when faced with overflowing hospital intensive care units as the coronavirus cases mounted has rightly drawn widespread praise, but depleted medical resources after years of austerity policies in public health have left them hamstrung. In comparison, Portugal has yet to hit such difficulties.
“We haven’t reached our full capacity yet,” the country’s health director, Graca Freitas, said a few days ago, referring to hospital occupation levels. “Right now, we’re on a plateau and no expansion [of hospital capacity] has been necessary.”
Hernandez points to differences in the two nations’ human geography. “Portugal’s public health system works well partly because of the country’s demography,” he said. “The urban areas are not so densely populated, with people spread more evenly through the countryside, and that has forced the health service to retain a broader network.
“Portugal’s greater recent investment in public health and a much more centralised health service have all helped, while greater levels of mass tourism in Spain and the high degree of mobility that goes with it could have encouraged the spread of coronavirus.”
Spain’s current total of recovered patients, 74,797, is proportionally far higher than Portugal’s current total of 493. However, that may well be partly down to Portugal being hit later by the epidemic, and for patients to make a full recovery from coronavirus can take weeks. But in either case, both Portugal and Spain are continuing to take major precautions.
In Spain, the lockdown is currently due to end on April 26, although Prime Minister Sanchez has already warned that further extensions will be required. In Portugal, the country’s health minister announced this week that face masks should be worn by everyone in enclosed public spaces such as buses and shops, and President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa confirmed on Thursday that the state of emergency would be extended to May 2.
“We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Rebelo de Sousa said with cautious optimism on Wednesday. In Spain, too, the national conversation is turning slowly towards the idea that that the worst of the pandemic may have passed. But on current evidence, Spain’s next challenges may well prove considerably more complex to resolve.