Covid under the microscope

Of everything I’ve read about Covid over the last six months, there are three Spanish language articles that have really stayed with me, and I wanted to share them here.

In Una oficina, un restaurante y un autobús (El País, 6 June), Javier Salas and Mariano Zafra draw together the forensic analyses carried out on three separate Covid outbreaks in China and South Korea, work that enabled scientists and other experts to start assembling a picture of how the disease spreads and how it may be prevented. This is one of those pieces that you read and then want to go out and collar someone so that you can tell them all about it … which is what I’m doing here.

The article starts with an outbreak in a call centre on the eleventh floor of a nineteen-storey building in Seoul, moves on to the city of Guangzhou where there was an outbreak in a restaurant crowded with customers celebrating Chinese New Year, and finishes up with another case study from China, this time an outbreak which occurred among participants in a Buddhist ceremony in Zhejiang. The writers highlight some common factors in all these cases – physical proximity, the length of time people were exposed to someone who had contracted the disease, the role of air conditioning. They also note the lessons that the authorities learnt; the need to space people out (and think about measures that will make this easier, such as home-working), the need for good ventilation within buildings, the value of mask-wearing, and many more. What’s really interesting in these cases too is who didn’t get infected – barely anyone in the rest of the building in Seoul, even though workers were sharing lifts and other facilities, nobody at the ceremony in Zhejiang apart from the original patient’s fellow coach passengers, even restaurant customers at tables near to the source of the outbreak, but not for very long.

On the same day, another article in El País was pointing to some rare good news on Covid from South America. In Los Andes, ¿la región que nos salvará de la covid-19?, Ramiro Escobar La Cruz reported from Cusco about the remarkably low rates of Covid infection there and in other Andean regions, all the more striking given the devastating impact of the disease in other parts of Peru (and other Latin American countries). The article notes that this is a phenomenon that has appeared in other high altitude areas, including Tibet, and speculates on the possible causes, although the author urges caution in the absence of definitive research results. There is a rather sad story hidden with the story in this piece; one of the very few casualties of Covid in Cusco was a British tourist in his eighties whose family and friends authorities were unable to contact in time for his funeral.

There is not much room for optimism in my final article, which covers a report issued by MSF on the terrible crisis generated by Covid in residential care homes for the elderly in Spain in the first few months of the pandemic (Duro informe de Médicos Sin Fronteras sobre las residencias: “Golpeaban las puertas y suplicaban por salir”, El País, 18 August). MSF were called in to help and their report does not pull any punches, pointing to a failure of leadership and lack of coordination in the official response, and decrying the very strict isolation imposed on residents which, the report argues, was inhumane and left them deprived of dignity. The report draws on the first-hand accounts of volunteers and staff in the homes, including a fireman who talked about residents banging on the doors of their rooms and begging to be let out, and the director of a home talking about the final days of one elderly resident who simply lost the will to live after being locked in, against her advice, at the insistence of the authorities. And the report warns that elderly residents are still in a vulnerable position.

The priority is to save lives

As Covid-19 started to take hold in the countries of Latin America, I wanted to look at how the countries of the region were coping. The daily round-up of developments in the crisis that El País has been publishing illustrates the starkly opposing strategies adopted by different administrations, particularly at the start of the crisis in March. While Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, was imposing compulsory, and enthusiastically policed, quarantine measures, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s initial response was to ban the use of face masks, even by medical staff, although he was subsequently forced to change direction. Ecuador rapidly became one of the worst affected countries and had to introduce strict curfew measures in an attempt to bring the spread under control, but El País reports that its economy is under severe strain from the combined effects of the lockdown and the fall in international oil prices.

The two countries with the highest death totals from the pandemic are now Brazil and Mexico. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador held off from imposing a total lockdown although non-essential activities were shut down. The country is now cautiously re-activating some areas, but not fast enough for some: in Landau cuestiona plan de reactivación industrial de AMLO, La Política Online reports criticisms from the US ambassador to Mexico that the government’s plans to loosen restrictions, including in the critical automotive sector, are too limited and are impacting negatively on the supply chain to US companies.

In Brazil the approach has been different: far-right president Jair Bolsonaro declared a state of emergency but did not impose any lockdown measures. Individual states have, however, and La Política Online reports on the running battle between Bolsonaro and those state governors, backed up by the supreme court, in Protestas de los seguidores de Bolsonaro contra la Corte Suprema y la cuarantena. Business leaders invited to participate in one typically theatrical protest organised by the president were at pains to distance themselves from his position. But behind the rhetoric, the article highlights the grim economic realities that are driving Bolsonaro’s approach: a massive drop in economic activity in a country where both supply and demand has been hit by the pandemic. LPO quotes the example of the automotive industry here too – only 1,847 cars produced in April, out of a normal 267,000. According to LPO, Brazil is facing the imminent collapse of its health system under the weight of Covid cases. And El País tells the story of one family’s desperate, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to find an intensive care bed for 66 year-old Ivanildo Vieira Damasceno in Fortaleza in north-east Brazil; none of the local hospitals could admit him to their ICU units and he died on 3 May.




It seems like no time

Back in December, I wanted to see how the Spanish papers were marking the end of a turbulent year. On 29 December, one of the top stories in El País was the ongoing mystery surrounding the drowning of three members of the same family of British tourists in a resort pool in Mijas. Nacho Sánchez reported that five days after the tragic and almost inexplicable incident, many questions remained, with different accounts emerging from the police and surviving members of the family, and claims from the family’s lawyer that investigators may have mistranslated witness statements. Sánchez pointed to conflicting briefings from the authorities caught up in intense media scrutiny and speculation, but highlighted official assurances that the investigation had not yet been concluded.

The following day, journalist Miguel Ángel Bargueño was thinking about the things that we used to do back in 2009, not that long ago really, he points out, but which nobody does any more, whether because of technological advances, the radically altered political landscape, growing ecological awareness or just the whims of fashion. His list includes dating of the offline kind, the two party system, texting, photo albums, women’s football not being a big thing, and throwing plastic in the bin with your organic waste, among many others. He leaves it to readers to decide which of these developments are good and which are bad.

In an altogether more sombre article in La Vanguardia, Jaume Pi was taking a look at how politics had played out over the year in Spain (2019: Cuatro elecciones y un tribunal). He points to the continuing dominance of events in Catalonia, arguing that it was the political heat generated by the trial of the separatist leaders, which started in February, that doomed Prime Minister Sánchez’ efforts to gain support for his budget, triggering the first of two general elections. Although the socialist PSOE emerged as the largest single party in both of these, they failed to win an overall majority, leading to a prolonged period when Spain was without a fully functioning government. By the time the article was written, the PSOE had reached a provisional accord with left-wing contenders Unidas Podemos, but the successful formation of a government would depend on the abstention of the Catalan Republican left party, the ERC, in the relevant vote (in fact, as the article predicted, the ERC did abstain in the investiture debate on 7 January, and Pedro Sánchez has been able to form a government). Alongside the ongoing fall-out from court cases involving Carlos Puigdemont, Quim Torra and others, and the fluctuating fortunes of conservative rival parties the PP and Ciudadanos, the article points to the growing strength of the new far-right group Vox, which started the year by winning seats in the previous socialist stronghold of Andalusia, and ended it with spectacular gains at national level, where it now holds 52 seats in the lower house of the Spanish Parliament. Stormy times ahead.

Crossing the Straits

Last April, Spain’s socialist party, the PSOE, emerged as the clear winners in the general elections, with an increased vote and a 57-seat lead over their historic rivals, the conservative Partido Popular. The PSOE did not win an outright majority, however, leaving party leader and acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez with the task of building a coalition. This is no simple task in Spain’s increasingly complex electoral landscape and nearly four months on, attempts to form a government are still foundering: in “Crónica de un desastre en directo“, El País journalist Carlos Cué charts the failure of last-minute attempts to rescue negotiations between the PSOE and left-wing party Unidas Podemos, the obvious candidates for an alliance, before a key vote on 25 July.

On 7 August, Pedro Sánchez had to give an update report to King Felipe, who has been urging politicians to find a way of breaking the stalemate. Lucía Bohorquez of El País reported on the mixed messages that emerged from this meeting (“Sánchez insiste en el pacto de legislatura pese a la “desconfianza” con Iglesias“); on the one hand, Sánchez argued that some form of agreement with Unidas Podemos was still possible, but at the same time he laid the blame for the failure of negotiations firmly at their feet, drawing an angry response from UP spokesman Pedro Echenique. Bohorquez concludes that a further election in the autumn is looking increasingly likely.

An opinion piece by Marisa Cruz in El Mundo ends up in pretty much the same place, arguing that Sánchez has deliberately sabotaged the deal which he is, on the surface, still seeking; in “Pedro Sánchez crea un “relato” perfecto para torpedear el pacto con Pablo Iglesias“, she points out that you don’t make friends of people by trading insults with them, and argues that Sánchez’ real strategy is focused on the coming, inevitable, election. She is particularly scathing about his call for parties on the centre-right spectrum in Spain to refrain from blocking the formation of a new government by abstaining in the relevant parliamentary votes; why, she asks, should the Partido Popular cooperate in the creation of a government which is pledged to sweep away key elements of the changes that the PP introduced under Mariano Rajoy, even if new leader Pablo Casado is trying to distance himself from some of Rajoy’s legacy.

Lucía Bohorquez points to the impact that the ongoing uncertainty is having, not least on the future funding position of Spain’s regional governments. It’s a relief, in the middle of the recriminations, to find out about something which does seem to be working: Operación Paso del Estrecho, a scheme set up to help immigrants and their families travelling from all over Europe to visit relatives in North Africa for the summer. This year the scheme is expected to perform the logistical miracle of smoothly transporting more than three million people to and from Tangiers, Ceuta, and other ports in Morocco and Algeria. In “De inmigrante ilegal a turista europea, la ida y vuelta de Sumnia al Estrecho“, Jesús Cañas catches up with Sumnia Meduen, her husband Said and twelve-year old daughter Mariam, on their way from Madrid to visit family in Casablanca on the busiest day of the scheme. Emergency helpers are on hand for those that need them but Mariam is more interested in the ice-cream van.


Who are you going to vote for?

On 28 April Spain is due to hold another general election, triggered by the current government’s failure to steer its budget through the Spanish Cortes. But the country’s electoral landscape is becoming increasingly difficult to read as new groups challenge the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics for decades, the PSOE on the left and the Partido Popular on the right.

Back in December, Javier Martín-Arroyo of El País was interviewing politicians, commentators and academics in an effort to understand the shock results of elections for the autonomous government of Andalusia, which saw the socialist PSOE lose its control of the region for the first time in 36 years, and new far-right party Vox burst onto the stage under its leader Santiago Abascal (¿Por qué ganó la derecha en Andalucía?), an outcome missed by all the political polls before the vote. Political scientist Jean Baptiste Harguindeguy warned against trying to reduce what happened to a single cause, talking instead about the interaction between a range of factors; voter alienation after a long period of single-party rule, historically low turnout, especially among voters on the left, and a PSOE-left block campaign which never really got off the ground, against an energetic and aggressive Vox, which was able to exploit social media platforms to tap into fears about immigration, globalism and austerity. Local PSOE activist Juan Chacón pointed to infighting that fatally undermined party morale in the run-up to the vote and was scathing about Vox’s manipulation of anti-Gibraltar sentiment to win votes.

Javier Martín-Arroyo said he was basing his article on expert interviews and anecdotal evidence in anticipation of statistical research then in the pipeline. In February this year, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas published its study of the elections, covered by El País in Siete claves de Vox, según el CIS. Based on individual voter analysis, the study paints a picture of Vox supporters who are mostly (but by no means entirely) male, relatively well-off and solidly conservative; 50% previously voted for the Partido Popular, and 21% for its centre-right rival Cuidadanos, while 10% said they had abstained in the 2016 general elections and a mere 9% were previously left-wing party supporters.

In Rivera apuesta todo a vencer a Casado tras el no al PSOE, Elsa García de Blas describes how Ciudadanos, under the leadership of Albert Rivera, is manoeuvering to wrest domination of the centre right in Spain from the Partido Popular, now led by Pablo Casado; in February Rivera publicly ruled out any form of coalition with the PSOE, with approaches to the Catalan crisis a key issue. The article stresses, however, that the party’s stance against Catalan independence goes beyond political tactics and carries huge emotional significance for Rivera.

And last week, Patricia Gosálves went to take the mood in the heartlands of the Partido Popular, meeting up with a group of ladies who lunch, and their parish priest, in one of the wealthiest (and more elderly) quarters of Madrid (Fabada con seis señoras bien: “Tenemos el WhatsApp enloquecido con Vox”). Over Asturian bean stew and a few bottles of wine, she talked to her interviewees about the state of the nation (terrible), taxes (way too high), breakaway movements (they hung out the flags), the Pope (a bit of a populist) and many other subjects, including euthanasia, where opinion was divided. On the elections, although Vox was making a lot of waves among their friends and their faith had been shaken by corruption scandals, they said they would stick with the PP. Or maybe not – one of the findings of the CIS study was reluctance to admit voting for Vox.



Follow the money trail

This month I have been trying to learn a bit more about Argentina through the stories running in the press there.

On 22 August, El Clarín was relating the anguish of the father of one of three passengers who died when a bus swerved off the road and crashed into a lagoon (Tragedia en Mar Chiquito). Musician Claudio Fazio, who had been tracking the progress of the bus using a mobile app, turned up at the scene unaware of the accident only to find emergency services desperately working on the site; among the debris later recovered was his teenage son’s beloved skateboard.

In the opinion pages on the same day, law professor Andrés Gil Domínguez was angrily denouncing the senators who voted out draft legislation which would have legalized abortions up to the fourteenth week of pregnancy (Presente y futuro de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo). Domínguez argues that the law on this area is now in a state of chaos as local and regional authorities have piled in with their own rules, in contravention of the constitution; he believes, however, that there has been a sea change in attitudes among women which cannot now be reversed and will inevitably lead to reform.

But the lead on 23 August was the latest twist in a major story about corruption: the so-called notebooks scandal involving an alleged bribery ring at high levels of former President Cristina Kirchner’s government. In  Claudio Bonadio tiene la autorización del Congreso y emite las órdenes de allanamiento a Cristina Kirchner, the paper reports on a successful application by the judge leading the investigation on the case to search properties belonging to Cristina Kirchner, now an opposition senator; the aim, according to the paper, was to check the credibility of claims by witnesses that they were the collection points for suitcases full of money from construction and energy industry contractors.

A few days earlier, news website LaPolíticaOnline was asking what impact the scandal was having on the political landscape of Argentina and in particular on President Macri, fighting to preserve popular support in the face of the current economic crisis; the answer seemed to be surprisingly little. According to a private opinion poll seen by the site, Kirchner’s ratings have actually improved since the scandal broke, while Macri’s have done little more than stabilise (Cuadernos: según Poliarquía, Cristina subió siete puntos desde que estalló el escándalo). The survey found that while the affair may be contributing to a general disillusionment with politics and politicians, corruption is a second-order issue for many voters in Argentina, who are preoccupied by the state of economy. The article argues caution however: despite Kirchner’s relatively positive standing at the moment, on the current showing it is still extremely unlikely, they think, that this would translate into success for her in the 2019 Presidential elections.

Don’t panic

Spain’s new government is starting to formulate its economic policy and on 20 July, El Mundo reported on a key element: the decision to raise the state spending cap for 2019 by 4.4%, the biggest increase for five years, and to soften deficit reduction targets  (El Gobierno eleva el gasto del Estado un 4,4% hasta llegar a 125.064 millones, la mayor subida desde 2014). Treasury minister María Jesús Montero is quoted as arguing that the rise will allow the government more headroom to promote growth and increase social spending, and will comply with Eurozone budget control rules. The article predicts, however, that new ministers will have to tread carefully to get the new approach through the Spanish parliament, given that the upper house is still controlled by the conservative Partido Popular, while on the left the Podemos party has been calling for a much higher spending increase.

The government’s approach reflects its more upbeat assessment of Spain’s economic prospects: according to the article, economy minister Nadia Calviño is predicting that unemployment will fall to 13.4% by the end of 2019, and to 10.7% by 2021.

Some of this optimism is on view in a piece in ABC on 13 July about business diversification and innovation in the Spanish banking sector (Los «nuevos» negocios de la banca: innovación tecnológica sin vajillas ni baterías de regalo). Despite the hype over the opening of a mobile phone shop in Mallorca by an offshoot of CaixaBank, journalist Carlos Manso Chicote argues that the real story is elsewhere as the big players like CaixaBank, Bankia, BBVA and Santander exploit mobile, digital and other technology to cut costs and develop niche markets; the challenge has been how to protect and extend their profits in the face of extended low interest rates. Experts interviewed for the article argue that the banks have learnt the lesson of the disastrous property boom and are now taking a much more balanced approach. Whatever CaixaBank has been doing seems to be working: La Vanguardia reported at the end of July that its half-year profits had jumped by 54% to €1.298 bn (CaixaBank gana 1.298 millones en el primer semestre, un 54% más).

And in El País, economist Luis Garicano has been looking at the potential impact of AI on jobs  (¿Cómo afectará la inteligencia artificial al nivel de empleo?). Recent research in the US, he argues, points to the positive lessons that we can draw from the past, especially the industrial revolution, where mechanization in agriculture, the textile industry and other sectors produced massive improvements in productivity, wealth and new economic activity which ultimately far outweighed the short-term displacement of jobs. The main risk, he thinks, is from new technology which is just enough of an improvement to knock out human jobs without generating enough of a boost to the broader economy to compensate. His conclusion: we can be positive about the future but need to be prepared for a period of rapid change and ensure that people can acquire new skills.


A Prime Minister falls …

At the beginning of June Mariano Rajoy was forced to step down as Spanish Prime Minister after a dramatic week in which a long-running corruption scandal involving the conservative Partido Popular finally claimed him as a political victim.

How did this happen? An article in El País on 9 May highlights how the Spanish political landscape is shifting, with support ebbing away from the two mainstays of the old bipartisan system, the Partido Popular on the right and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español on the left. In “El bipartidismo desciende hasta los peores resultados de su historia” the paper reported on a recent poll of voter intentions which put the joint standing of the two parties at a historic low of 46%. The main loser at that point was the PP, suffering the fallout from the continued crisis in Catalonia and a scandal over a Masters degree of dubious standing handed out to a prominent PP politician in Madrid, but the poll also signalled declining support for the PSOE and a lack of public confidence both in Mariano Rajoy and in Pedro Sánchez, whose honeymoon period after his own dramatic re-establishment as leader of the PSOE was, the paper concluded, definitely over. The PSOE’s rival on the left, Unidos Podemos, was sticking at around 19-20% of the electorate; the real winner from the poll was Ciudadanos who had risen sharply in a mirror image of the PP’s decline and now stood slightly ahead of the PSOE.

The same edition reported on the latest twists in the Gürtel scandal: a final ruling from Spain’s supreme court upholding the verdicts on a number of businessmen and PP officials in Valencia, found guilty of corruption over the allocation of regional government contracts (“El Supremo confirma la primera sentencia de la red Gürtel y avala la prueba clave”).

Cut forward to 31 May and La Vanguardia was reporting on Rajoy’s last day in office, following a week that started in triumph for the Prime Minister as he managed to negotiate support from the Basque Nationalist Party the PNV for his budget, but quickly turned to crisis when the verdict of another major trial in the Gürtel series was handed down (“De la euforia a la caída: los ocho días que tumbaron a Rajoy“). Critically, this time the case, which saw former PP Treasurer Luís Bárcenas sentenced to 33 years in prison, directly impinged on Rajoy as the trial judges cast doubt on the credibility of the evidence he had given to the court as a witness. It was the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, who pressed Pedro Sánchez to bring a no-confidence motion although the paper argues that Rajoy’s fate was really sealed by the less than wholehearted support he got from Ciudadanos, who called for new elections. As his political enemies circled, the coup de grace came from the PNV who decided that, this time, they would cast their vote against him.

In a surprisingly sympathetic piece, El País reported that the deeply private politician reacted by withdrawing from public view for a few days, closeted with his family and a few close advisers before announcing his decision to step down from the leadership of the PP, and politics, at an emotional executive meeting of the party (“El secreto mejor guardado de Rajoy“).

He won’t pick up the phone

Boris Johnson’s trip to Chile, Argentina and Peru hit the UK headlines at the end of May, and I was curious to see what the press there would make of his visit.

El Mercurio, one of Chile’s main dailies, carried an article written by the Foreign Secretary calling for the current trade terms between the UK and Chile to be rolled over post-Brexit, but this left one Twitter commentator puzzled (” They were part of the EU!!! Who understands them”). The main focus for many journalists was Johnson’s visit to a Falklands war memorial where he laid a wreath in honour of the Argentinian soldiers who died in the 1982 campaign. In Argentinian paper La Nación , journalist Alan Soria Guadelupe reported that Johnson’s visit to the memorial, accompanied by his opposite number Jorge Faurie, was a first for a British foreign minister on Argentinian territory and reflected a growing closeness in relations between the two governments (“Inédito homenaje británico a los caídos en Malvinas“).

In Chile, a leader in El Mercurio drew a link to another issue facing South American leaders – how to respond to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The article “Chile Frente a Maduro” condemns US threats of military action but calls on the US and EU to join in diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Maduro regime. The article argues that Britain could use its links with Caribbean members of the Commonwealth, many of whom still support Maduro, as part of this campaign, and suggested that this issue that should be on the agenda for Johnson’s meetings with Chilean ministers.

There were issues closer to home for many Chilean journalists over this period. Online monthly periodical El Ciudadano reported on the anger and frustration of one Chilean priest at the apparent inability of bishops, including his own, to face up to the child abuse scandal that has been rocking the catholic church in the country (“En Linares hay un chiquillo abusado por un cura y el obispo de allá no le contesta el teléfono“).

A bucket of cold water

Today I’ve been looking at an Argentinian newspaper, El Clarín, to check out their take on events in Latin America.

This rightish paper leads with an article on President Mauricio Macri’s speech to the closing session of last week’s Summit of the Americas in Peru (Mauricio Macri advirtió que la Argentina desconocerá las elecciones en Venezuela). Changed at the last minute to reflect events in Syria (news of which hit the heads of state assembled for an official dinner “like a bucket of cold water”), Macri’s speech denounced the use of chemical weapons in Syria before getting to the main point, an attack on forthcoming elections in Venezuela, which Argentina is refusing to accept as legitimate, and an appeal to the other countries of the region to put joint pressure on the Venezuelan Government to reform. A big ask, according to the writer, Santiago Fioriti, who points to opposition in Bolivia and elsewhere.

For Fioriti, and for some readers who left comments, what’s really interesting about the speech is what the President didn’t say: he refrained from commenting directly on the US missile attack on Syria, instead calling for international cooperation to avoid escalating the crisis, and was also conspicuously silent on the storm of corruption scandals dominating politics across the region, including in Peru itself, where President Pablo Kuczynski was forced out of office only weeks previously when videos emerged of attempts to buy off legislators ahead of a vote on his impeachment. Fioriti thinks there were hits and misses for Macri at the Summit: he had productive and high-profile discussions with some other leaders, including Canadian President Trudeau, but a one-to-one meeting with Donald Trump was of course cancelled and a hastily-arranged replacement session with Mike Pence was dropped at short notice.

Back home, commentator Julio Blanck talks about the challenge that much worse than expected inflation figures for March this year are throwing up for President Macri (La inflación pone en jaque a la política), with a boost to his political opponents and internal rumblings among his supporters. Blanck argues that the inflation figures have to be seen in the context of a fall in the cost of living since 2016, but admits that they have overshadowed other more positive news on the economy, where there has been a growth in activity, public spending and employment and a decline in poverty. The problem, he points out, is that inflation hits hardest at the middle and lower middle classes who constitute Macri’s voter base. Macri has tried to avoid hardline austerity policies with their consequent social costs, but public confidence in his ability to control inflation is falling, according to recent polls.

The paper also picks up on heated exchanges in a city council meeting (El insólito cruce de una concejal macrista con opositores por su maternidad), where the female chair and mother of a six-month old baby angrily rebutted criticism that she should have taken maternity leave, telling her accusers that it was not available to councillors, and should be; she had had to work, she pointed out, right up to the last week of her pregnancy. Natalín Faravelli later posted a picture of herself breastfeeding her baby in the chamber, with an appeal for more respect and understanding for the problems that female politicians have to overcome. The political world of Argentina is complicated but some issues are familiar.