Spain’s government faces a huge lawsuit over Covid-19. It’s alleged to have ‘deliberately’ endangered the safety of its public – through encouraging nationwide marches for Women’s Day.1 April 2020
- In a class action lawsuit filed on March 19, the socialist Spanish government has been accused of knowingly endangering public safety.
- The main contention is that it was reckless to encourage the public to participate in more than 75 marches held across Spain on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day.
- When asked why it was doing so in the midst of a then-rising contagion, the Spanish government’s main spokesman on the coronavirus pandemic, Fernando Simón, had told a national news conference that there was no risk in attending the rallies on March 8. “If my son asks me if he can go, I will tell him to do whatever he wants,” he had said.
The Spanish government, comprised of a coalition of Socialists and Communists, is being held responsible for putting its narrow ideological interests ahead of the safety and wellbeing of the public. That, the lawsuit alleges, worsened the humanitarian crisis now gripping Spain, currently the second-worst afflicted country in Europe after Italy.
Hundreds of thousands of people participated in those marches. Several high-profile attendees — including Spain’s deputy prime minister, as well as the prime minister’s wife and mother, and also the wife of the leader of coalition partner Podemos — have since tested positive for COVID-19.
The lawsuit, involving more than 5,000 plaintiffs, said the government deliberately downplayed warnings.
Here is the sequence of relevant events:
- September 2019. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an international panel of experts convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), warned of a “very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.
- December 31. China alerted WHO to several cases of unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, a port city of 11 million people in the central Hubei province. The virus was unknown.
- January 7. China identified the new coronavirus as the cause of a mystery disease in Wuhan.
- January 21. WHO confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus.
- January 29. Spanish pharmaceutical cooperatives warned that pharmacies were running out of masks due to a surge in demand. Sales of masks surged by 3,000% in January compared to the year before.
- January 30. WHO Director-General declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
- January 31. The first known case of COVID-19 in Spain was confirmed in La Gomera, Canary Islands, where a German tourist tested positive and was admitted to a local hospital.
- February 12. Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest mobile phone trade fair, which draws more than 100,000 participants from 200 countries, was cancelled due to fears of coronavirus. The financial loss to Barcelona and the city’s hospitality industry was estimated to be €500 million ($560 million).
- February 24. More than 1,000 guests and employees at the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife, Canary Islands, were quarantined after an Italian citizen tested positive for COVID-19.
- February 27. A 62-year-old man from Seville tested positive for COVID-19. His was the first case of local transmission of the virus in Spain. The man said that he believed he was infected during a banking conference in Malaga, where he sat next to a partner who traveled to the Canary Islands on vacation and had had contact with people from Asia. Doctors said that the diagnosis was of “great importance” because it proved that COVID-19 has been circulating in Spain without detection.
- March 2. The European Center for Disease Control and Prevention advised European countries to cancel mass gatherings of people to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.
- March 2. The Spanish Medical Agency sent a letter to pharmaceutical distributors to restrict the marketing of masks and to block their distribution across Spanish pharmacies. The agency’s objective, on the advice of the Ministry of Health, was to ensure the supply of masks to hospitals and health centers at a time when the number of confirmed cases was beginning to multiply. The measure blocked sales to Spanish pharmacies, as well as sales abroad.
- March 3. The regional health ministry in Valencia announced that the first coronavirus fatality in Spain died on February 13. Health authorities did not know he had the virus until 19 days after his death — an indication that Spanish authorities have been slow to understand the outbreak. Since coronavirus cases that end in death last between two and eight weeks, in addition to a 14-day incubation period, it is possible that the man was infected as early as the beginning of January.
- March 3. Spanish authorities ordered major football and basketball matches to be held behind closed doors with no spectators allowed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
- March 6. The Spanish Ministry of Health advised: “The precautionary principle must prevail. The emergence of a hitherto unknown virus means that precautionary measures must be taken based on the existing scientific knowledge regarding viruses.”
A Spanish-based journalist Matthew Bennett discovered that the Spanish government failed to report new coronavirus cases between March 6 and March 9, apparently in an effort to downplay the danger to the public of attending the rallies.
On March 9, after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Madrid doubled in one day, the President of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, ordered all schools in the capital to be closed for at least two weeks. The decision by the regional government caught the central government by surprise and effectively forced it to act.
- March 10. Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa, a Catalan philosophy major with no experience in medicine, said: “Today’s situation may be different from yesterday’s, it is changing, and this will continue to be so until we overcome this situation.”
- March 11. The Spanish government acknowledged that it knew on March 8, before the feminist rallies took place, that the coronavirus outbreak in Madrid was out of control.
- March 12. Prime Minister Sánchez, defending himself against criticism that he allowed the marches to go ahead, said that his government was responding to the “dynamic” situation of the coronavirus by “adapting” to the “hourly” recommendations of scientific experts.
- March 14. The central government announced a nationwide state of emergency that effectively placed 46 million people in lockdown for at least 15 days. All non-essential travel has been prohibited and people are confined to their homes except in cases of emergency or to purchase food or medicine. All schools and universities in the country are closed.
- March 29. The lockdown, the strictest in all of Europe, was extended until April 11.
Víctor Valladares, a Madrid-based lawyer who is leading the lawsuit, said:
“The result of the calls for these demonstrations and their direct approval by government delegations and by the inaction of the central government chaired by the accused, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, could not be more antagonistic to what the EU indicated in its report. Why was not an order issued to prevent any type of mass event?”
Meanwhile, the Association of Doctors and Medics of Madrid (AMYTS) and the Confederation of Medical Trade Unions (CESM) also filed lawsuits against the government. The complaint demands that the federal and local governments provide hospitals in Madrid with masks, protective glasses and waste containers within 24 hours.
Criticism of the Spanish government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has also come from members of the Socialist Party itself. On March 22, Juan Luis Cebrián, a co-founder of the newspaper El País, usually seen as a mouthpiece of the Socialist Party. He wrote:
“The crocodile tears of so many political leaders who claim that no one could have imagined such a thing such as the coronavirus do not make any sense. There were not only those who imagined it: they foresaw it, and they seriously warned about it. There has undoubtedly been negligence on the part of the various health ministers and their bosses, and in France three doctors have already filed a complaint against the government for this reason. The consequence is that most Western nations today are overwhelmed in their abilities to fight the epidemic. They reacted late and erroneously. Lacking is: hospital beds, medical personnel, respirators and transparency in official information.
“On February 24, WHO officially declared the probability that we would be faced with a pandemic. Despite this and knowing the magnitude of the threat, which has already been fully realized in several countries, hardly any measures were taken in most of the potential scenarios for the spread of the virus. In the case of Spain, attendance at gigantic demonstrations was encouraged, the holding of massive popular festivals was promoted, urgent funding for research was delayed, the threat was minimized, and even the official still in charge today of the scientific recommendations dared to say between smiles that there was no risk to the population.
“This is not the time to open a debate on the subject, but it is legitimate to assume that in addition to political responsibilities, citizens… will have the right to demand legal redress if there is guilty negligence.”
Spain is one of the European countries most affected by the virus: As of March 29, more than 80,000 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and more than 6,500 had died as a result. As the pandemic runs its course, Spain is on track soon to overtake Italy as Europe’s hardest-hit country.