Lessons from the coronavirus:
the EU and industrial transformation

Article in CajaSiete Blog, 26 March 2020

Leopoldo Cólogan

Leopoldo Cólogan in front of the mural of Sonia Sotomayor, US Supreme Court Justice, in the Bronx, New York.

Lessons should be drawn from any experience, positive or negative, in order to avoid making the same mistakes again or to identify what can be improved for this generation and future generations.

The coronavirus crisis is a reminder that human beings are vulnerable and that borders are fictitious lines artificially created to organise us as a human collective, as Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book “Sapiens. From Animals into Gods.”

It also helps us to remember how important it is that we human beings know our own history, not to manipulate it or to encourage differences but to improve and confront common problems, while bearing in mind that friends are those who have the same enemy, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out.

In this case, the common enemy is the influenza virus, which does not recognise states, races or religions. It is nobody’s fault that it exists, but rather it is part of our existence and we carry it by the mere fact that we move around and that an epidemic or pandemic is repeated approximately every fifty years. This requires us to be coordinated and prepared, and it is essential to provide people with up-to-date and real information on the risk in order to know how to act and be able to minimise it.

That is precisely why the United Nations established the Global Influenza Programme in 1947, a year before the constitution of the World Health Organisation (WHO) came into force, in order to monitor the development of the virus. On 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus as of 2019 a public health emergency of international concern, and believed that it was still possible to stop the spread of the virus, provided that countries take strong measures to detect the disease early, isolate and treat cases, follow up contacts and promote social distancing measures appropriate to the risk. It did not recommend any travel or trade restrictions at the time of the declaration.

On 11 February 2020, the World Health Organisation also gave it the official name of COVID-19, meaning coronavirus disease as of 2019. It stated that the name of the virus would avoid any stigmatisation and would not refer to a specific geographical location, animal, individual names, animal species, culture, population, industry or occupation.

Subsequently, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared that the disease was now classified as a pandemic given the number of people infected and deaths worldwide.

Our great-grandparents lived through this in 1918, and we are suffering and fighting as they did, but they did not have the information or the awareness of the World Health Organisation because it did not exist.

In March 1918, in Fort Riley in Kansas in the United States of America, many US army recruits fell ill with influenza and subsequently arrived in Europe during the First World War, contributing to the spread of the virus throughout Europe. This was due to the poor hygienic conditions of trench warfare, which lasted until November of the same year. The outbreak was not publicised due to strict military censorship during wartime in the United States of America and in Europe, with the exception of Spain, where the press treated the 1918 influenza pandemic with great concern and powerlessness, as it was a neutral country, just as the United States of America had been from 1914 to 6 April 1917.

"I believe that it is time for the World Health Organisation to correct the historical errors that encourage stigmatisation of serious health issues, and to prevent the media, such as the Los Angeles Times,[...], from publishing news on 31 January 2020 stating that “China’s new coronavirus spreads as easily as the Spanish Flu of 1918”. "

It is estimated that more than half a million people died in the United States of America, approximately four hundred thousand in France and more than two hundred thousand in Spain and Great Britain, among many other places in the world. But they expressed little objection, and it was in their interest to encourage people to refer to it as the Spanish Flu in order to maintain the morale and self-esteem of the army and public opinion.

In 2015, when Bill Gates warned us of the new virus on the horizon, he referred to the Spanish Flu. If you visit the impressive Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in the United States of America, which is a monument to the values and self-esteem of a great country, in the exhibition hall at the entrance you will find on display a photograph of many deceased American soldiers, indicating that the reason for their death was the Spanish Flu.

I believe that it is time for the World Health Organisation to correct the historical errors that encourage stigmatisation of serious health issues, and to prevent the media, such as the Los Angeles Times, the second largest metropolitan newspaper in the United States of America, from publishing news on 31 January 2020 stating that “China’s new coronavirus spreads as easily as the Spanish Flu of 1918”.

The issue is not trivial, indeed there has been a clash between the United States of America and China, who are in the middle of a trade war, because no one wants the name of the disease to be used to stigmatise or to blame others, and Spain and its media should not allow or encourage this any longer. It amounts to a debt to the truth, to use part of a metaphor cited by Gideon Rachman, Head of International Politics at the Financial Times.

That said, and returning to the coronavirus of 2019, in Spain, which must continue to look at and face the present to draw the best possible future, united and in solidarity, several measures have been adopted so far, notably those included in Royal Decree 463/2020 of 14 March, partially modified by R.D. 465/2020 of 17 March, which declared a state of emergency for an initial period of fifteen calendar days to manage the health crisis caused by COVID-19. This included restrictions on freedom of movement, temporary requisitions and compulsory personal allowances, and containment measures in the areas of education, work, commerce, recreation and places of worship. There were also those included in Royal Decree Act 8/2020 of 17 March on extraordinary emergency measures to deal with the economic and social impact of COVID-19, and Order SND/257/2020 of 19 March of the Ministry of Health, which declared the closure of tourist accommodation establishments to the public.

The practical implementation of all these and other measures taken by the government shows that what our various administrations do is not enough, but is necessary to win the battle against the virus and minimise the profound damage it is causing us, with the irreparable loss of every single life lost: The responsible involvement, and properly understood solidarity, of each and every person and company in this country, such as that of Amancio Ortega, and the industrial transformation which is taking place in our companies to manufacture health material or converting hotels into hospitals or support centres.

Some are on the front line, such as health workers, the security services in all areas, including the military, those in the production and distribution sector, and others in the background, such as those who remain at home, and the civil servants and employers who make a huge effort to ensure that workers whose jobs have been suspended receive their benefits; as well as international collaboration and cooperation to have immediate information on the development of the virus, to share experiences and research in the search for a vaccine, and to facilitate the production and acquisition of health material and equipment for the areas most in need.

"the lack of national and international prevention and planning in terms of health resources is the price we are paying for the debt to the truth of 1918. It is difficult to learn from something that was not recognised as it existed at the time."

The events of 1918 show us that the pandemic was temporary and that after the summer it came back again. So once we are able to overcome this first wave, we will have to be better prepared for a second one.

The most important lesson is prevention and planning, and thanks to the European Union, which originated from the need to establish a Common Agricultural Policy as a result of the shortages that followed the Second World War, for making basic necessities accessible to citizens. In other words, thanks to Community aid, today we have a primary sector with productive land, with a system of production, transformation, marketing and distribution that gives us access to these basic necessities that are essential for this battle.

By contrast, the lack of national and international prevention and planning in terms of health resources is the price we are paying for the debt to the truth of 1918. It is difficult to learn from something that was not recognised as it existed at the time.

Another lesson we are drawing from this experience is that we must not panic or become fanatical. We must consume in a responsible way so that there will be enough for more people for a longer period of time and honour our commitments as best we can, so that we do not break the chain that binds us together and also minimise the impact on the economy. We should also never give up being free, which includes respect for our privacy.

It is wonderful to walk down the street without anyone asking you where you are going and to be able to go on trips, such as visiting a city that is not the capital of the state or the country but can boast of being the capital of the world – New York. It is a city of contrasts, where different lives can coexist, such as that of the orthodox Jewish woman and that of Sonia Sotomayor, a New Yorker from the Bronx of Latin American origin, who is currently a judge at the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The latter is undoubtedly an example of effort and self-improvement.

“You have to create your own growth, no matter how tall your grandfather was.” This quote from Abraham Lincoln reminds us that we must take advantage of the industrial transformation that is under way in Spain to produce healthcare materials so that, once we are able to improve our standing in this battle, we can intelligently assist the rest of the world in winning the war against the virus, and just as Amancio Ortega filled the world with Zara shops, we must now fill it with healthcare materials – because this wave will also reach the rest of the world.

In this way, with the effort and intelligence of our private companies and the help of our administrations, we can support our economy and our self-esteem, and more importantly, save many lives. Together with the EU, let’s take the lead in this international cooperation at the global level. It is an opportunity for us to change and improve the world and to uphold our values.

We should not forget that some countries have stopped exporting healthcare materials, while others have not accepted or identified the true extent of the problem. We know what materials they will need. Let’s help them.