Europe’s Unhealthy Lockdowns

By William J. Furney

Donald Trump may be suggesting people inject themselves with disinfectant, and also somehow shine a UV light inside their bodies, to kill the coronavirus, but here in many parts of Europe we have different concerns. 

From tomorrow in Spain, young children will be allowed out for short walks for the first time in six weeks; older kids are not so lucky. Anyone over the age of 14 and up to the age of adulthood and beyond will have to remain in state-imposed home-jail until the authorities decide otherwise. 

It’s to ensure you live, not die. Even if it means dying a slow death, from the inside, from the physical and mental strain of being able to do hardly anything at all. Not to mention the wholesale demise of economies and the loss of tens of millions of jobs. 

A large swathe of Spain’s urban population lives in small, high-rise apartments, particularly in places like the capital, Madrid, and Barcelona, in independence-minded Catalonia, both epicenters of Spanish coronavirus infections and where the majority of cases have been recorded, with 7,848 and 4,498 deaths, respectively — from a nationwide fatality toll of 22,902, according to today’s official figures.

“El estado de alarma” is now entering its seventh week, as the government of socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez oscillates between allowing more freedoms and backpedalling. Along with equally badly coronavirus-hit Italy, the lockdown is the most severe in the world, and going out for a run, cycle or casual stroll is banned, unless you’re going to the supermarket or walking your dog, which explains the roaring trade in dog rentals — €50 a pop, I’ve heard.

“Neccesita un perro?” my delightful property agent, a Canarian who looks like Penelope Cruz and who has a seemingly unlimited capacity for nonstop talking, asked me recently, wondering if I wanted a dog so I could go out for a walk. “No, gracias,” I’d said, pointing to my bike and telling her I take the scenic route to the supermarket.

From my lopsided vantage point in Gran Canaria, where I remain trapped as the borders are closed and there are no flights, I watched a live interview on Spanish television this week with a family of four people — two adults and two children (the father badly obese), living these past difficult weeks in what amounts to a prison cell: a tiny apartment of just 50m2. How they managed to smile at their uncomfortable confinement was beyond me, but it was testament to the sunny disposition of the Spanish people, even in these most troubling of times.

The government was forced this week to apologise to children for a blunder in which it initially said kids would only be allowed to the supermarket with a parent from Sunday, but later said they could go outside to walk, scoot about and generally play, although not with children they don’t live with.

“I know that confinement is not easy for you: not going to school, not seeing friends and family and having to play alone at home, without being allowed to go outside, and I want to thank you,” pony-tailed Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, of the left-wing Podemos (We Can) party said at a news briefing. “When difficult decisions are made, mistakes can be made, and that is why we are apologising to you,” he  told the country’s imprisoned children. 

Allowing children out to get some fresh air should not amount to a difficult decision, and the central government has come under fierce criticism for its hardline tactics, including from the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau. The mother of two young kids called on Sanchez to “free our children” because the unending quarantine was harming their welfare and that they “need to get out.”

The Spanish and the Italians, with their dictatorial backgrounds, have long histories of overdoing it, heavy-handed-style. 

Meanwhile, I, feeling like a dank criminal, am reduced to surreptitiously running out the back of my bungalow, after I was told weeks ago by the management in my large complex I was not allowed to run around it, something I had been doing for several days at the stage. A Danish woman I know who lives here and loves to run told me she’s been able to keep it up, to benefit her mental health (a sane Dane), by running along a deserted piece of land behind her house, all the time fearful of the police catching her and issuing a big fine (around €300), or worse, like arrest. She pleaded with me not to tell anyone, lest others find out about her cardio indulgence and want to try it for themselves, thereby potentially inviting the prying eyes of the law.

Rules of the Road: An advisory from the Spanish government saying children under 14 can go out with one adult, once a day for one hour and a maximum of 1km from home, and from 9am to 9pm, from this Sunday,

Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, has branded Spain “a giant Chavista prison with rationing cards,” referencing the late Venezualian leader Hugo Chavez. That was in a mid-week, testy and 11-hour parliamentary debate on whether to extend the brutal lockdown for a third time, to May 9, since it was suddenly placed on the country on March 14. 

And now there is growing debate, including from Spanish lawyers on TV news shows, about the legality of the long-running confinement, with some arguing that it violates fundamental human rights. Even in times of global emergency, don’t the people who power democracies get a say? At least one recent poll showed the majority (51%) do not support Sanchez’s strict lockdown measure that amounts to house arrest. 

As this is happening as tourism authorities on these Canary islands — an archipelago of seven small specks off the coast of northwest Africa — announced that tourism, which makes up the mainstay of the collective local economy, is suffering losses of around €200 million a month. And that, they say, the islands won’t open up to domestic tourism until at least August, or  allow foreign tourists in until October at the earliest. Yet this grouping of exotic islands relatively distant from the mainland has only recorded 130 deaths, out of a population of over 2.1 million, making the confinement and business-destroying measures seem extreme. 

What of Britain, which crossed the grim death toll of 20,000 today, and where people are allowed out to exercise, for the good of their physical and mental health? After all, exercise is infamous for boosting the immune system, which is vital for battling bugs such as the coronavirus (which I’ve had). And what about lone European wolf Sweden, where through this health crisis bars, cafes and restaurants — and schools — have remained open, albeit with people taking social distancing measures? 

A state epidemiologist in the Nordic country, Anders Tegnell, said Sweden was successfully beating coronavirus without the kind of harsh lockdowns seen in other European countries. “To a great part, we have been able to achieve what we set out to achieve,” he told a media briefing this week. “Swedish healthcare keeps on working, basically with a lot of stress, but not in a way that they turn patients away.” And he told Nature magazine this week that “closing borders is ridiculous”. 

With the sheer amount of people dead (now over 200,000) and dying from this new disease, no one would say that measures to protect people’s health should not be enacted. But going overboard, as both Spain and Italy have done, is not healthy at all. 

  • Title photograph, of a deserted street in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria, on April 24, 2020, by William J. Furney


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