Why did coronavirus hit hard in Italy and Spain? Some blame a lack of social distancing — and a lot of social kissing.

Melissa Rossi
Contributor

BARCELONA, Spain — When Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain, a country now in lockdown with over 17,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, took the dais in Parliament in Madrid on Wednesday to announce a $220 billion package to help his country’s tourism-powered economy, warning that “the worst is yet to come,” Micol Maria de Vincenti was appalled.

“I thought, ‘What is Sánchez doing in the Parliament — his wife is testing positive, he’s supposed to stay at home!’” says the Italian-born engineer who’s been living in Madrid for decades. Never mind that most parliamentarians had skipped the Wednesday session in the Spanish capital, where on average four people are now dying every hour from COVID-19. “When the leader of Spain is breaking his own quarantine, it’s not setting a good example.”

De Vincenti was not the only one taken aback at the seeming lack of urgency about the coronavirus in Spain, where cases began climbing three weeks ago, and where concepts like social distancing didn’t enter the discussion until this week. That recommendation still doesn’t appear in the Health Ministry’s advisories.  

A young couple kiss in Barcelona on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

The World Health Organization now considers Spain an epicenter of coronavirus transmission, along with Italy, which has recorded more than 41,000 cases, more than any other country except China. Spain is on track to surpass Iran as the country with the third-most cases within days.

And the very qualities that make both Spain and Italy so beloved by tourists — the laid-back attitudes, the warm cheek-kissing greetings, the world-famous cathedrals, museums and historical sites, stadiums filled for soccer matches, the terraces where hundreds gather for aperitivos, sangria and meals — may be exactly the things that helped spur the spread of the coronavirus in this part of the world. “The main transmission is through droplets,” says Dr. Sylvie Briand, a top official in epidemiology at the World Health Organization in Geneva. “When you’re talking to people, we recommend keeping a distance of at least [3 feet]. So when you’re kissing or getting closer to people, the risk of transmission is high.” If Spain hasn’t specifically cautioned against kissing as a greeting, she says, “it should be done — it’s very important.” Reducing the size of gatherings is critical too, she says. “When a country is seeing cases here and there, distributed among its population, we don’t recommend large gatherings” where healthy people and people who might be infected mingle in proximity. “It’s just statistics,” she says.

Italy also has one of the oldest populations in the world, with a median age of 45.5; it is 42.1 in Spain and 38.1 in the U.S. And nearly a quarter of citizens in both European countries still smoke; the rate in the U.S. is closer to one in seven. Both of those factors could have contributed to the spread or severity of COVID-19.

A woman walks her dog in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona on Wednesday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

But in contrast to Italy, where authorities took swift action to lock down the part of the country where the coronavirus first circulated in Europe, followed by the entire country, the government in Spain seemed slow to react.

That has all changed in the past few days.

“People didn’t take it seriously here,” says restaurateur Lee Anthony, whose Barcelona terrace eatery was packed Friday with festive partiers but was closed the next day when Spain declared a state of alarm — shuttering bars, theaters, parks and beaches, and telling Spaniards to stay home, except to shop for essentials or go to their jobs.

Private citizens like Barcelona artist Mark Rios, whose acquaintances traveled freely back and forth to Italy for events like Milan’s Fashion Week, which began Feb. 18, took matters into their own hands. To the laughter of his friends, Rios bought a face mask three weeks ago. “People in Italy were getting sick and visitors were just driving right back over the border into Spain or catching a flight here — with no questions, no temperature monitors, at airports,” Rios says.

People in the Barcelona Metro system on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

But Spanish health authorities didn’t share the alarm, instead emphasizing calm, which in retrospect seems like denial. In the second week of February, organizers of one of the world’s biggest technology conferences, the Mobile World Congress, which brings over 100,000 exhibitors and attendees from all over the world to Barcelona, began to worry about the epidemic. But Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau dismissed their concerns, promising abundant hand sanitizer and medical staff at the event, which contributes over $500 million to the local economy. Conference organizers took steps on their own, including barring attendees who’d been in China within the previous two weeks, and then canceled anyway. Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa scoffed: “There is no need to take any other measure than those that have been taken,” said Illa, a former small-town mayor who had no previous experience in public health or medicine.

One Spaniard, who asked not to be identified, told Yahoo News that a relative, an official in the national government, complained that his office was deep cleaned for the coronavirus last week. “Do you think it really even exists?” the government official asked.

People on balconies in Barcelona on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Even when Italy sequestered its north on Feb. 22 and Spain began seeing a sudden jump in coronavirus cases, especially among citizens who had visited Italy around then, health authorities here maintained there was no reason to shut down museums, call off political rallies, cancel always-important soccer matches or in any other way discourage the tourism that accounts for some 16 percent of GDP. When a Spanish journalist who traveled to Milan with the Valencia team on Feb. 19 became ill with COVID-19, Spain’s health authorities allowed the games to continue — though they recommended that matches played in Spain against Italian teams be played without spectators.

The medical team of an ambulance wears special anti-contagion suits in Barcelona on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

“We acted way too late here,” says Barcelona resident Kerry Jessop. “This should have been nipped in the bud back then.”

Spain’s health authorities uttered no words of caution against demonstrations such as the one on International Women’s Day on March 8, when hundreds of thousands turned out side by side to march in Madrid, or huge political rallies, like the one held by ultra-right party Vox in Madrid on March 7. “They kept saying, ‘Stay calm, there’s nothing wrong — it’s only in Italy,’” recalls de Vincenti.

So the cheek kissing in Spain continued, along with the soccer matches, the parties and even the tourists, though Americans were leaving, or attempting to leave, in droves after President Trump’s confusing announcement last week about shutting down entry to the U.S. from Europe.

The Mossos d’Esquadra police detain a skateboarder for breaking the rules of confinement in Barcelona on Wednesday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Last week the alarm bells finally began ringing in Spain when Spanish politician Javier Ortega Smith, secretary general of Vox, now the country’s third most popular party, tested positive for the coronavirus. The party apologized to the 9,000 supporters who had attended their rally days before and announced that its 52 representatives in the lower house would be staying home as a precaution. That day both houses of Parliament pretty much shut down — not for health reasons, they claimed, but because it wasn’t democratic to meet with one entire party absent.

Then came news that the Vox party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, was also testing positive — news that did not thrill Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who met with Abascal when he visited the U.S. at the end of February, and was already in self-quarantine after possible exposure to the virus. Abascal attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where Trump spoke and other administration officials and Republican officeholders attended.

It wasn’t only Vox party members who were testing positive. So was Spain’s national minister of equal rights, several members of Barcelona’s City Council, the president of the region of Catalonia — and the wife of Prime Minister Sánchez.

The Mossos d’Esquadra police patrol the streets of Barcelona on Wednesday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

But even though Spain confined several small communities considered hot spots in the country while cases were popping up in every region, when news that several players on the Valencia team had contracted the coronavirus, it wasn’t the health authorities that announced soccer matches in Spain would be canceled indefinitely — it was the soccer league itself that made the decision.

By last Friday, however, dramatic steps were taken. Sánchez appeared on TV, announcing a “state of alarm” and asking residents to stay home, except to buy essentials or to work if they could not work from home. Which meant only one thing to many: Party! Even Saturday, Spaniards were still cheek kissing and having get-togethers in tiny apartments; even Saturday, some were still dining out, including one entrepreneur who asked that her name not be used. She didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until the restaurant where she was sharing tapas with visiting guests shut down midmeal. “They told everyone to put their napkins in their wineglass and they would be closing.”  

This week in Spain, since the lockdown began, doormen, couriers and supermarket cashiers are all wearing masks — a rarity even four days ago. This week, notes Lucie Gutziamanis, who works with a Barcelona legal firm, few are kissing — “everyone looks at each other like they’ve got leprosy.”

Shoppers line up at a Barcelona supermarket on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

In Italy, where residents have been locked in now for 10 days, they’re complying but growing weary. Lorenzo Dell’Aiuto in Florence says he wishes the government would just test everybody, like they did in South Korea. “That way healthy people can keep working,” he says.

Katia Maronati, like many in Milan, has grown used to the long lines in grocery stores, where shoppers stand at least 3 feet apart, and where security allows only 10 people into supermarkets at a time. There were mistakes, she concedes, but the Italian government never tried to hide the truth from the people, and she, like most Italians, thinks the lockdown is for the best, although cases are still rising.

“The high point of the day for us now is 6 o’clock,” she said — when Italians gather on their balconies to join in communal singing.

Spaniards are gathering on their balconies too — stepping outside at 8 p.m. to applaud the health workers battling the coronavirus, as ships in port join in with their horns. Spanish authorities warn that the lockdown here, scheduled for 15 days, could extend well into April or longer. And only five days into it, local Barcelona police have given out over 2,000 fines and issued over 10,000 warnings to those already bored with Spain’s lockdown.

A woman claps in support of the doctors who are fighting the coronavirus in Barcelona on Thursday. (José Colon for Yahoo News)

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

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