We have started meeting up with friends and family and we can hear laughter coming from outdoor cafés. In just a few hours we will be allowed to go for a swim in the sea and, at some point, we will start hugging each other again. The cold weather is gone and our memory, ever so selective and deceitful, will invite us to forget the hell we have gone through and get back to business as usual.
We have survived indeed, but as a community —that is, politically speaking— we cannot afford to forget and we will need to start a process of accountability and stock-taking. We owe it to the thousands of Covid-19 victims and the weeks-long, titanic struggle of so many health care staff to analyse what has happened, ask the questions that remain unanswered and learn from this experience so that we are better equipped to handle a fresh outbreak of the pandemic in the middle term and strengthen our national health service in the long run.
We journalists aren’t usually involved in what we observe and being part of the story makes our work difficult. Right off the bat, let me say that we failed to anticipate the impending disaster, too. We had been monitoring the situation in China closely, we had published three special features on the topic and some in our newsroom kept warning about the situation and the catastrophe we might be facing. However, the situation was far from clear-cut and there was a raging debate between those who felt the issue was being blown out of proportion and the ones who used to put into question the reassuring statements coming from the Spanish and Catalan public health authorities, who insisted that the disease was not serious, masks were not advisable and our health service was robust. In hindsight, it is obvious that our public health system was unprepared and unaware of how deadly, fast-spreading and aggressive the virus was. We were following the blind.
We journalists have worked through the pandemic, but limited access to information has been a source of frustration. That’s why, now that the pandemic is on the wane, we have gathered the still-fresh memories of many professionals and answered some of the questions by talking to about seventy of the protagonists of the reaction against the worst public health crisis we have faced since the Spanish civil war (1936-39). A team of seven reporters led by Elena Freixa has worked for a month on the special feature you can read today, a piece where some of the faces sitting at the forefront of management, decision-making and care provision are given a chance to be heard.
We have listened to them and felt their anguish and exhaustion. Many of these professionals have practically reached the end of their tether.
We have reconstructed the events and have found evidence of poor planning. We have documented how the blistering spread of the virus put the system on the ropes, how action was taken to set up new hospitals providing additional ICU services, how protocols became obsolete before they even had a chance to be applied because new developments rendered them useless, and how they sought help to procure material that had become unavailable through the usual channels due to surging demand on a global scale and the shutdown of China’s manufacturing. We have also heard about how doctors would stand by their patient’s bedside and learn on the fly about the behaviour of a virus that, in a flash, had pushed them to the brink of death by striking not just at their lungs, but also at their other vital organs. We listened to the account of how hospitals reacted by cutting out the red tape to cope with the influx of new patients and how care homes were sidelined. Some of them would experience harrowing days, when care was lacking and dying became a lonesome affair. One particular eyewitness account springs to mind: in the case of elderly patients, the response was “morphine, morphine, morphine”. It might have been the only possible course of action, but an explanation is needed against the so-called “therapeutic savagery”, the conduct of ethical committees and the consent and involvement of the patient’s next-of-kin.
Taking stock, taking action
Yesterday an expert doctor, one of those who —to quote his own words— do not levitate when they don their coat, spoke of his pessimism about what the future holds and our capacity for accountability in a society that is not used to assessing public policy. He asked how many Spanish and Catalan health ministers we remember for their expertise and demanded a “more advanced, more modern, more social” system, one that would have allowed for a better response. Like many of his colleagues, he shuns sentimentalism and, instead, demands action and competence. He is unfazed by the “clap for our carers” initiative: “It was our job to do it. Our commitment, our social contract. We get paid a wage from taxpayer’s money in return”.
We have listened to them. Now we need to respond by taking a ten-year view.