What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

After more than 17,000 deaths, how Spain is coping with COVID-19

Spain is among the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 so far. But after more than 17,000 deaths and weeks of a strict lockdown, workers in some non-essential industries returned to their jobs Monday. The easing of restrictions is controversial in a nation whose medical community has suffered heavily from the pandemic -- and still lacks adequate protection. Special correspondent Max Duncan reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Spain is one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19.

    But after thousands of dead, and weeks of an intense lockdown, workers in some nonessential industries began to return to their jobs today.

    Special correspondent Max Duncan reports from Madrid on how Spain has been coping.

  • Max Duncan:

    At Spain's biggest field hospital, there is an unfamiliar sense of order. This makeshift facility opened just over three weeks ago to support the city's hospitals overwhelmed by the rapid spread of COVID-19.

    Now the 1,300 beds at Madrid's main convention center are close to full, and 16 intensive care units are fully operating. What now seems ordered launched in chaos. This transformation reflects the pressure easing on the health system a month after Spain launched one of Europe's toughest lockdowns.

  • Amparo Alonso (through translator):

    The situation at the start was much more complicated, disorganized. I want to congratulate all my colleagues for how well we have organized ourselves and how we have pushed forward, with the lack of means that we had at the beginning.

  • Max Duncan:

    But the field hospital's director, Antonio Zapatero, warns that it is far too early to celebrate.

  • Antonio Zapatero (through translator):

    There are still a lot of patients. We are still very busy, in a very difficult phase. Yes, we see that the pressure it easing, but we are a long way from saying it is controlled.

  • Max Duncan:

    The virus has brought weeks of horror across Spain, but nowhere has been worse hit than the capital, which has seen over a third of almost 17,500 deaths countrywide. The city's intensive care units were overwhelmed.

    These scenes captured inside one of Madrid's main hospitals even showed patients lying on the floor. Since a strict lockdown was ordered in mid-March, Spain has hibernated. Residents have only been allowed out to shop for food and medicine, to visit hospitals or do essential work.

    Those who break the mandatory confinement face heavy fines. And it has worked, if at a terrible cost. After peaking 10 days ago at almost 1,000 deaths in one day, the curve has flattened, and recorded new daily deaths have been below 700 for the past five days.

    In a controversial loosening of restrictions, some industries, such as construction and manufacturing, restarted today. This allows an estimated four million to return to work, despite the country still recording over 500 new deaths in the last 24 hours.

    With four weeks of tough quarantine measures finally taking effect, Madrid's overwhelmed health system is grasping back control. But with personal protective equipment and testing kits still in short supply, health workers in many of the city's hospitals are still at serious risk of infection.

    In no other country have doctors and nurses been hit so hard. They make up around 14 percent of all Spain's infections, and are sent home to self-isolate precisely when they are needed most.

    Shortages led to a dire creativity, medical workers using plastic bags for protection. While supplies have improved significantly in the last two weeks, the damage has already been done in Madrid's ill-prepared nursing homes. Nearly 800 residents who tested positive have died.

    But regional officials have said that almost 3,500 dead with similar symptoms are not counted in official statistics.

    Beatrice Cano says that more than 30 residents have died at her retirement home, including in recent days, some bodies left for hours before being collected. Two care workers at the same home told us they also feared that their inadequate protective equipment was putting residents and themselves at risk.

  • Beatrice Cano (through translator):

    I'm terrified by the lack of hygiene, lack of materials, and a situation so chaotic that we have one single nurse attending to people with the COVID-19 virus, and to us as well. I feel like I'm in a real-life horror film.

  • Max Duncan:

    But while supplies are scarce, some health care workers are back on the job.

    Dr. Alejandro Quiros became ill while working in his E.R. He spent 17 days in home quarantine after testing positive for the virus, while his few colleagues still standing have fought on.

  • Alejandro Martin-Quiros:

    In our situation, I think, right now we have more than 60 percent of us with positive tests for COVID-19. Ten days ago, we had 450 patients in the E.R.

    So, as you can suppose, 60 percent of us sick is very, very difficult.

  • Max Duncan:

    His isolation now over, he is able to return to work, and believes he is now immune.

  • Alejandro Martin-Quiros:

    It's pretty hard to be at home. And I'm proud to be able to help people.

  • Max Duncan:

    As new infections and deaths stabilize, but with widespread testing still impossible, authorities are now launching an effort to map the virus with selective testing nationwide, in hopes of gradually lifting the lockdown.

    But, despite these first tentative steps, nothing is normal in the time of COVID-19. Funerals at the Almudena Cemetery, Madrid's largest, are now drive-through services. They last no more than seven minutes. No more than three people can attend. And there is no touching.

    The deacon sprinkles holy water and says a brief prayer. He and his colleagues now do this almost 30 times a day.

  • Santiago Perez Moreno (through translator):

    In the four years since I was ordained as a deacon, it's the first time I have seen anything like this, to have religious services every 10 to 20 minutes. It's constant. We feel that the families are grateful for the service.

  • Max Duncan:

    Today, three cousins are saying goodbye to their aunt Manuela, who died in her elder care home.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Aunt, rest in peace. We all love you so much.

  • Max Duncan:

    Juan Antonio films with his smartphone as they throw on the flowers to share with all the relatives that would have come to the funeral.

  • Maria Jesus Revuelta (through translator):

    The hardest part of this situation is that the whole family can't be together in this last goodbye to my aunt, and, above all, because she died in these circumstances, when she was alone.

  • Max Duncan:

    Death is hard enough. Dying alone is something else, visited upon untold thousands here, amid a crisis that might have been avoided.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Max Duncan in Madrid.

Listen to this Segment