MADRID. A month ago, Spain made great strides in the fight against Covid-19. The number of cases in the country was one of the lowest in Europe, and nearly 80 percent of the country has been vaccinated, so few eligible people can get vaccinated.
Then Omicron came along, and success gave way to uncertainty.
So far, three cases of this variant have been identified in Spain, as the number of cases of Covid-19 infection has grown steadily throughout November. The emergence of the option now prompted local governments to promptly implement the new measures they were considering. Catalonia for the first time in Spain introduces a “passport” for Covid-19. The Basque countries are preparing a declaration of emergency with restrictions for bars and restaurants that look like a return to the past.
The new moves show how fragile advances against the virus can be. But widespread acceptance of vaccinations in a country could prove crucial.
If current vaccines provide good protection against this option, then Spain could be largely protected from a potential new wave. If the fight against Omicron requires a change in the composition of the vaccines, then the Spaniards seem poised to take another shot if their leaders recommend it.
“When it comes to vaccines, in Spain there is just a broad consensus among citizens – they are following the recommendations of scientists,” said Salvador Illa, a former Spanish health minister who oversaw the country’s response during the first year of the pandemic.
Experts attribute the vaccine’s success in Spain in part to the trusted public health system that has spearheaded the effort. Politicians also played a big role, starting with fanfare to take doses and avoiding politicized debates about the vaccine. When it came to vaccines, masks and other precautions, the Spaniards followed the recommendations of their health leaders for the most part.
Due to delays in vaccine rollout in the European Union, Spain initially lagged well behind the US and UK. But when the supply problems were resolved, the country quickly caught up with them. Now almost 90 percent of those eligible for the vaccine – all people over the age of 12 – have received it, and a few Spaniards are left to get vaccinated.
As you walk the streets of Spain, across most of the continent, you encounter a Europe different from ordinary. Masks are worn not only indoors, but also outdoors by residents of many cities where the government does not require them for several months.
And while fighting over the pandemic response was common in Spain’s tense political landscape, almost no one worried about whether citizens should be vaccinated.
Among the main reasons for this vaccine consensus, according to many, was that Spain was hard hit by the pandemic early on. In April 2020 alone, Covid-19 killed about 15,500 people, matching the first wave in Spain with that in Italy and New York. The Spaniards, as well as the inhabitants of the area, were flooded with headlines about hospitals flooded with intubated patients and makeshift morgues accepting bodies.
Rafael Vilasanjuan, director of policy at ISGlobal, Barcelona’s public health think tank, said the experience left a deep collective will to vaccinate.
“In the first wave, we were completely unprotected,” he said. “There was nothing. In Spain it was a big deal.”
Countries such as Germany and Austria, where vaccine resistance are now ingrained in parts of the country, have also faced deadly waves of infections. But they appeared later, during the pandemic. In Germany, 69 percent of 83 million people are fully vaccinated, while in Austria, a country of about nine million, 67 percent are fully vaccinated.
Mr Vilasanjuan said Spain’s demographic data also favorably influenced the adoption of the vaccine. Not only are there many at-risk seniors in the country – almost 20 percent of the population – but also Spanish young people live with their parents for an average of up to 30 years.
This has led to the fact that in many families in which there are several generations, young people received vaccinations to protect older relatives.
December 2, 2021 12:20 PM ET
“Respect was shown between generations, which led to more people being vaccinated,” said Mr Vilasanjuan.
Another factor that may have set Spain apart from other countries was that its politicians largely avoided turning the scientific consensus on vaccines into an arena for debate.
Spain is a politically polarized country. Nationalist squabbles and the emergence of a far-right political faction have split the country in recent years, creating fertile ground for the combination of politics and vaccine resistance that has been seen in the United States.
Yet while some minor figures in Spain spoke out against vaccines, politicians rarely followed suit. The biggest debate has centered around the Spanish economy and whether the pandemic’s limits have gone too far.
“Government officials never question this, and it has been key not only in vaccines but in getting people to keep their masks,” said Dr. Jose M. Martin-Moreno, professor of preventive medicine and community health care. in Valencia, who also worked with the World Health Organization.
A department store, run by Rebeca Torres and her family in the remote mountain village of Navarredonda de Gredos, opens a window to Spanish perspectives on the fight against Covid-19.
Since clients walked inside on a recent snowy day, they did not need to put on masks before entering: they were already in them. Alongside rows of local bread and bottles of red wine, there was a public health advertisement inviting people to take a third dose.
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Ms Torres said almost no one in the city had even heard of the vaccine campaigners or their statements. She explained that she was taking immunosuppressants for multiple sclerosis and had trusted science for many years. She saw no need to stop now.
Maria Luisa Hernandez, a pharmacist based in the neighboring village of Hoyos del Espino, said she believed the first wave of infections in Spain caused the population to readily accept vaccines when they were available.
She estimated that about 60 percent of the area’s population was elderly. In the first weeks of the pandemic, government clinics closed due to quarantine, and people could only contact their doctors by phone. Many seniors were unable to navigate the complex system of online prescriptions.
Ms Hernandez, whose pharmacy remained open during the quarantine, ended up being the only medical professional to personally supervise the sick. She and everyone she knows is vaccinated. According to her, no one wanted to return to the situation in 2020.
However, Spain remains on the lookout for both the Omicron option and the new wave of Covid-19 cases that began before the option was discovered. In recent weeks, the number of new infections has more than tripled to about 190 cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days.
However, these numbers are much lower than in other European countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, which are currently some of the hardest hit by infections.
Franziska Hernandez sees no reason to relax her vigilance.
A 77-year-old man with no relationship to a pharmacist lives in a multi-generational family. Her daughter moved in with her after losing her job. Her son, a livestock breeder, constantly meets other men when they move their livestock to pastures and then come to visit her.
She said she had her third shot last week. All of her family members will soon receive theirs as soon as her youngest grandchildren become eligible.
“There is no one in my circle who is not vaccinated,” she said. “We know this is the only solution.”
Roser Toll Pifarre prepared a report from Barcelona.