MADRID – With Italy already submerged in a national quarantine, Spain took a major step Friday toward a similar lock-down as it struggles to ride the wave of the coronavirus pandemic spawning illness and fear around the globe.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said his government will declare a two-week state of emergency on Saturday, giving itself extraordinary powers including the mobilization of the armed forces, to confront the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It's an emergency that affects the life and health of all," Sánchez said, adding that he is preparing a battery of measures to brace the nation for an even bigger jump in infections indicated by the rapidly increasing contagion curve.
The positive cases could be over 10,000 by next week, the prime minister warned in his televised address, from more than 4,200 confirmed by midday Friday. A total 120 people have died, and 189 have been declared as recovered.
A state of emergency allows the central government to limit free movement, legally confiscate goods and take over control of industries and private facilities, including private hospitals. It's only the second time that the government has evoked it since the return of democracy in the late 1970s. The other was declared during a 2010 air traffic controllers' strike.
Over 60,000 people awoke Friday in four towns near Barcelona confined to their homes and with police blocking roads, in the country's first mandatory lock-down. The southeastern region of Murcia since announced it was locking down coastal areas popular with tourists.
More than 62 countries, including neighboring Morocco, have restricted arrivals from Spain, which has so far only stopped flights with Italy. On Friday, the British government advised against all but essential travel to Spain's La Rioja, parts of the Basque Country and the Madrid region, which has seen more than 2,000 positive cases of the new virus.
With hospitals rapidly filling up, the Spanish capital is a source of particular concern.
Unlike China, which cracked down quickly to restrict movement by people, Italy, Spain and other European countries have taken a more measured approach to strike a balance between the public health crisis and individual freedoms.
Italian authorities have acknowledged that escalating restrictions have been unable to contain the virus. Italy this week has gone into complete quarantine with authorities threatening to impose heavy fines and even jail time for those who break it.
The Madrid regional vice president said Friday that the capital is in dire need of medical supplies, despite announcing an unprecedented plan to reshuffle the region’s health system that included pooling intensive care units from both public and private hospitals and even considering creating additional hospital rooms in hotels. At least two hotel chains have offered their premises.
“We can’t let more days go. We already know what’s going to happen tomorrow and the day after tomorrow because we have the examples of China or Italy,” Ignacio Aguado told Spanish public broadcaster, TVE. “This is a silent hurricane.”
The streets of downtown Madrid, normally bustling with commuters on an average Friday morning, were almost empty as the message from authorities to stay home took hold. The city’s mayor issued a decree to ban the outdoor seating for café terraces and was considering the closure of bars in a city that loves its tapas and ‘cañas’ (small-sized beers). Authorities had already closed museums and sports centers, sent home nearly 10 million students and has asked people to work remotely, while limiting crowds at public events in high-risk areas.
Madrid regional authorities tightened the screw later Friday, ordering the closure of all commercial establishments except those selling food and other essential items, such as pharmacies.
The region's 2,078 cases and 64 deaths account for roughly half of the national total.
Yet officials and citizens in coastal areas have complained about the influx of people from Madrid in recent days, as some have taken advantage of the closing of schools in the capital or policies to "work from home" to take trips.
“Stay at home, these are no holidays!" Fernando López Miras, the regional president of the southeast Murcia region, said after he announced that his government was prohibiting access to coastal areas popular for beachgoers Friday.
"It's shameful to see how the tourist information offices in Murcia were full of people from other regions this morning,” he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
In Igualada, a town of nearly 40,000 some 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Barcelona that was put under mandatory confinement on Thursday night, the number of cases has almost tripled in 24 hours.
Miguel Caballero, who runs a family restaurant in the town, said the lock-down was adding to the pain of having to juggle work and taking care of two children who have no school. Leaving them with grandparents was out of question because the elderly are considered a high-risk group.
“The situation is serious but we are aware that this is going to help to halt the contagion here and to stop it from spreading,” Caballero said.
The biggest concern is whether Spain’s largely public health system is able to sustain the sharp increase in cases, especially after years of austerity measures exhausted resources in hospitals and health centers. The central government on Thursday allocated an additional 3.8 billion euros ($4.2 billion) for reinforcing personnel and supplies for hospitals, as well as a 14-billion-euro ($15.6 billion) stimulus package for the economy.
Public health expert Rafael Bengoa said private clinics may not be too much help because they rarely have intensive care beds, which is what is most desperately needed.
"Look, this is not only going to be controlled by authorities, it is going to be controlled by social participation," the doctor said, adding that Spain has the advantage of Italy's experience and "more time" to prepare.
"There will be tensions in Spanish hospitals in the next two, three weeks, but we have had time to mitigate the demand coming in," Bengoa said.
Sánchez finished his televised address on Friday with one final appeal to the nation of 46 million.
“Victory depends on each one of us,” Sánchez said. “To be a hero also means to wash one's hands and stay at home."
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. AP reporters Philippa Law and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
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