World

Reporter’s notebook: Of Spanish own goals – and Ebola

By Timon Wapenaar 14 October 2014

A recent map of Spain’s Twitter analytics plastered one word over the entire country, from Vigo to Algeciras: “Ebola”. Spain has been in the international news, and for all the wrong reasons. Again. By TIMON WAPENAAR.

Spain just can’t catch a break. Forced to take a “Troika” bailout in 2012, a sense of humiliation permeated what was once the growth engine of the EU. At least we still had the football. Coca-Cola ran a saccharine TV spot in which the central moment was a painfully slow-mo replay of the famous flying kick perpetrated by Dutchman De Jong (read “Northern Europe”) on Xavi Alonso. Spain would endure all the slings and arrows of outrageous refereeing and emerge triumphant because of the combination of hard-nosed Iberian pride and Mediterranean nous which had won them the World Cup. For another two years, the country stumbled from corruption scandal to vaporous “green shoots”, to stunning official incompetence in the face of a host of crises. Unemployment stubbornly refused to come down, no matter how cleverly the numbers were juggled. The old king, with his bulbous Bourbon nose and his habit of tripping over his own feet in public, abdicated, and Spaniards paid scant attention to the coronation of his son. The Gran Via was not lined with thronging multitudes as Felipe made his way down it to become Felipe VI. The population of Catalunya, which contributes more to the Spanish economy than any other region, was adamant that it wanted independence. At least we still had the football.

In many ways, Spain’s spectacular exit from the 2014 World Cup was a watershed moment for the country’s psyche. Now, we had lost everything. New corruption scandals continued mounting, while the old ones dragged on. When Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy decided to repatriate an Ebola-infected Spanish priest who, at 75 years of age, had little hope of recovery, the move was widely interpreted to be politically motivated. Experts pointed out that Spain was ill-prepared to deal with an Ebola patient. Many on the left pointed fingers at Opus Dei, the Broederbond-esque secular arm of the Jesuit order. The subsequent death of this first priest, Miguel Pajares, was lost in the noise generated by incessant political and economic scandal, and it hardly registered at all when the decision was taken to repeat the procedure with a second priest, 69-year-old Manuel Garcia Viejo, who had been in charge of a hospital in Sierra Leone.

What happened next was to unleash a deluge of debate, invective, hand-wringing and blame-swinging on a scale which not even the World Cup failure could elicit. The latest corruption scandal – which saw board members at two of Spain’s bailout-funded “bad banks” using off-the-books credit cards to spend hundreds of thousand of Euros on air travel, groceries, jewellery, and expensive wine – was pushed from the front pages. A map of Spain’s Twitter analytics plastered one word over the entire country, from Vigo to Algeciras: “Ebola”. Spain was international news, and for all the wrong reasons. Again. The first few days saw a stunning series of revelations emerge in which no player was left untarnished. A 44-year old nursing assistant, who had been wearing a double suit, had managed to become the first person to contract Ebola outside of Africa. Teresa Romero Ramos had taken leave the day after cleaning the deceased Miguel Pajares’ room, and had apparently followed protocol, taking her temperature twice a day. After two days, she placed a phone call to the hospital, complaining of fever and fatigue. The reply was that since her fever was not high enough (38,6 degrees was the required level), she should continue monitoring her temperature and stay at home.

Six whole says later, she was finally admitted to a hospital. The wrong hospital. While the Hospital Carlos III had been jerry-rigged to deal with Ebola patients like Manuel Garcia Viejo, Teresa Romero was taken to the Hospital Alcarcon (closest to where she lived), in an ordinary ambulance by paramedics without protective clothing. She was quickly transferred, but all of those who attended her at Alcarcon have been placed in isolation.

The hits kept on coming. Apparently Romero had found out from news reports on the internet that she had been diagnosed with Ebola. No one seemed in possession of all the information, never mind the authority to handle the crisis. Regional and national health officials flailed about from press release to press release. Prime Minister Rajoy promised more press releases. Speculation turned to how Romero could have been infected in the first place, if she had been wearing two suits. Perhaps, in a country in which the Virgin Mary is mayor-in-perpetuity of several towns and recipient of the national police’s medal of honour, it was a case of immaculate infection. Or perhaps it was because, by all accounts, Romero received less than half an hour’s training in the use of the suit. Indignant nurses protested outside the hospital, complaining that they had been completely unprepared. Madrid’s regional health chief Javier Rodriguez tried to deflect popular anger, declaring: “You don’t need a Master’s to put the protective suit on”, and was promptly torn to shreds by social networkers. News bulletins became monomaniacal fiestas of Ebola updates, as the top of the hour was lost under an avalanche of breaking news and the rest of the hour was at the mercy of frequent Ebola-related interruptions. One of the more high-brow Spanish tertullias (as Spanish talk shows are called) began a three-hour orgy of Ebola-themed cacophony with a yellow hazmat suit spread out on the table between the guests, and the strains of something which sounded alarmingly like the soundtrack to HBO’s WWII drama Band of Brothers looping underneath the conversation for a solid 10 minutes. It was Saving Private Ryan meets Outbreak, as realised by Almodovar; it was a gaudy-macabre comedy in which 3,000 dead West Africans were little more than extras.

And then, as if we had not been through enough, it was the dog’s turn. Exkalibur, who belonged to Teresa and her husband Javier, had been with Teresa in the fateful week preceding her admission to hospital. Spanish authorities were keen to “sacrifice” the animal. Javier went all-out on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Thousands responded with visceral demonstrations of support. Crowds gathered outside the couple’s flat in Alcarcon, where Exkalibur had been left locked up with “extra food and water” and “access to the balcony”. The vigil became a protest. Fights broke out with the police. Eventually, it was announced that Exkalibur had been euthanised for fear of carrying the virus. By a strange coincidence, it was the same day that the news broke of the death of Loukanikos, the famed “riot dog” of Athens, who himself had been a protagonist in many a running battle with Greek riot police.

Spaniards have taken it all to heart. For many, the Ebola fiasco seems to be the last straw, and the harshly self-deprecating irony which characterised the public reaction to previous crises has assumed a tone of exasperation and even self-flagellation. The government has been unable to react with the calm deliberation needed to preserve a semblance of credibility. Instead, it has allowed itself to be constantly put on the back foot by the media. The governing party, the ostensibly conservative PP, has gone so far as to claim that that there is a conspiracy on the part of the press which “intends to create a false alarm with false news”. The upshot is that, in a typically reactionary move, the government has found itself juggling roles and responsibilities on the fly: the universally unpopular minister of health has had her role in the crisis handed to the deputy prime minister, while the job of communicating with the press and the Spanish public has been handed to the minister of defence. No sooner was this accomplished than the ministry of defence found itself responding to the blog post of one of its own officers: Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura uploaded a video of himself accessing a defence webpage on which it is claimed that Ebola may be transmitted through the air – in contradiction with the official stance taken by the WHO. According to the ministry of defence, the webpage in question refers – naturally – to the use of Ebola as a biological weapon.

And on, and on…

Teresa Romero is currently in hospital (the right one, this time) where her condition is said to be deteriorating. With her are the medical staff who attended her when she arrived at the wrong hospital, as well as the three beauty therapists who waxed her legs in the days preceding her admission. Dozens of others are “under observation”. Pro-Exkalibur demonstrations continue (“I am Excalibur” reads the sign hanging from the neck of one demonstrator’s dog), even though Exkalibur has been dead for several days now. In a totally unrelated incident, a Spanish soldier has been charged with impersonating an Ebola victim. His motives are unknown.

The death toll in Western Africa has officially passed the 4,000 mark. Oh, and Spain lost 2 – 1 to Slovakia. DM

Photo: Photography provided by Animalist Party Against Animal Abuse (PACMA) of Teresa Romero Ramos, the Spanish nurse who is the first case of human-to-human ebola contagion in Europe, with her dog. EPA/PACMA

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