Spain declares state of alarm as coronavirus cases jump 7-fold in just 5 days

By Julia R. Arévalo

Madrid, Mar 13 (efe-epa).- Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Friday declared a state of alarm after the number of coronavirus infections multiplied by seven to over 4,000 this week.

In a televised statement, Sanchez said the government would roll out the measure from Saturday, and would remain in place in 15 days to “respond to the socio-economic emergency with the highest possible agility and forcefulness”.

The government will approve “a combination of exceptional measures designed to mobilize all of the state’s resources to better protect the health of all citizens,” including civilian and military resources, both public and private.

The state of alarm, which has only been declared once since Spain became a democracy again in 1978, enables authorities to limit the movement of people, ration consumption and seize goods.

Spain follows Thursday’s similar announcement by neighbors Portugal, and takes on board the lessons learnt by Italy, which in a matter of weeks has been overwhelmed by the outbreak to become the worst affected country outside of China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are still only in the first stage of the fight against the virus being waged by countries around the world and in particular our continent, Europe. We expect tough weeks ahead,” Sanchez warned.

“We cannot rule out that in the next week we will unfortunately reach 10,000 people affected.”

The prime minister said that “all of the efforts of the country’s health authorities are being directed to prevent a rapid spread of the virus in order to help patients who, due to their age or underlying conditions, are most vulnerable” and require hospital treatment.

“It will take weeks. It will be very hard and difficult, but we will stop the virus, that is for sure,” Sanchez said. “United, we still stop this virus.”

Panic started to spread in the Mediterranean country, home to 47 million people, on Monday when health authorities announced that the number of COVID-19 cases had doubled over the weekend, and began applying measures including the closure of all schools and universities for two weeks.

The first people confined to their homes were the elderly of Madrid, the country’s worst-affected region.

Spain has one of the highest longevity indexes in the world – at 83.5 years – and more than 6 million people over the age of 70 – the most vulnerable group to COVID-19.

But these measures, as well as the closures of education centers, were not immediately extended to the country’s regions that are less affected by the virus, due to the system of self-governance that Spain’s various autonomous regions enjoy in health and education sectors.

Doctors and health workers Friday joined calls on social media appealing for common sense, with the message: “join the challenge, stay at home.”

But not everyone is heeding the calls to exercise caution: students in Madrid who come from different parts of the country have been returning home with their families, and some have taken advantage of the shutdown to go to their holiday homes by the beach.

“This is not a holiday”, said Fernando Lopez, the president of the region of Murcia, a popular tourist destination, who was visibly angry as he echoed the words by Madrid’s mayor, José Luis Martínez Almeida, before announcing the confinement of all the residents of Murcia’s tourist resorts.

Lopez criticized the behavior of people who have traveled to Murcia – a region that is home to 1.5 million people – from Madrid when they were already ill or continued to enjoy the pleasant weather outdoors on beaches and terraces.

“The image is shameful, it is irresponsible. This irresponsibility cannot be permitted,” he said.

Similar measures have been taken in the Catalan municipality of Igualada and three nearby villages, where 70,000 people have been isolated after a new cluster of COVID-19 cases were found, affecting dozens of its hospital workers.

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