Covid-19 vaccinations in Spain

The ongoing vaccine rollout shines a light on the current state of politics in Spain

The joy surrounding the news of the approval of the Covid-19 vaccine, together with the first vaccinations across the globe, has now given way to questions regarding the logistics for ensuring that a significant majority, if not all, of the world’s population can get access to the vaccine in good time. At a European level, against the backdrop of the Brexit behemoth that has finally been laid to rest (for now), political leaders have now been able to focus at a national and international level on a clear strategy for rolling out the Covid-19 vaccines.

Specifically, the Spanish government has decided that the vaccination will be free, and more importantly, optional for citizens. However, since the start of the vaccination programme on the 27th of December, the data have shown that progress is very slow compared to what was initially anticipated, with the region of Madrid having used only 6 percent of the weekly doses it received from the central government, and with only slightly better numbers in the region of Catalonia, where 13% was used during the first week of the programme. This has inevitably raised scepticism about the feasibility of the government’s ambitious target of having 70% of the Spanish population vaccinated before the end of summer 2021.

Another important decision surrounding the vaccination programme has been the fact that citizens will be able to easily opt-out of their assigned dose, should they not want to participate, by means of a verbal or written authorisation. However, the government may have sparked yet another political confrontation given its decision to keep track of the people who refuse to be vaccinated.

The key behind this decision may be the fact that public trust in the vaccine has never been very high in Spain. Following the announcement of the government’s vaccine rollout plan, only 43% of the population claimed to trust the vaccine, with media usually pointing to the historically low trust in politicians as an explanation for why the vaccine is not being accepted widely in the population. From this perspective it would make sense that the government has made this vaccine both free and optional, as this gives leeway to both those who want to be vaccinated and those who don’t.

On the one hand, maintaining a positive perception of the Spanish healthcare system, which has taken a battering during the pandemic, by providing a free vaccine to those willing to take it, is a great testament to the progressive (PSOE-led) coalition’s belief that no citizen should be denied access to a potentially life-saving vaccine on the basis of economic wellbeing. On the other hand, making this vaccination optional is both a bet on the population’s collective sense of responsibility and a safeguard against more political outrage from a distrustful electorate.

This plays out as the government’s reaction to the pandemic has fumbled back and forth from a centralised response to the pandemic to ceding further control to the regional governments. In practice, this has meant that the country has seen its ability to fight the pandemic impaired by regional squabbling and disjointed measures to contain the spread of the virus. Seeing as the vaccination is seemingly following a similarly mixed approach whereby the central government allocates the doses required based on regional population numbers and the regional government are responsible for implementing the vaccines, it remains to be seen whether the vaccines will be administered quickly enough to reach the government’s ambitious targets and perhaps even increase public trust in the vaccine.

On top of the pandemic, next month (February 2021)’s regional elections in Catalonia might also prove a headache for the PSOE-Unidas Podemos coalition. Following Quim Torra’s removal as President of the region of Catalonia in September 2020, Catalan citizens are being called to an election that will not likely shake up the Catalan political landscape. In fact, the main novelty may come from the ranks of the Catalan Socialist Party’s (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, PSC), where Salvador Illa, the current Minister for Health, will be the candidate to preside over the regional government. As an old Spanish political adage quips, Ministers for Health are made by the president and unmade by a healthcare crisis. However, Illa’s reconciling and sober tone has stood out from the ever-more divisive tone in the Spanish Parliament which has reinforced his image as a quiet, hardworking and earnest politician, in stark contrast to most of his contemporaries, both inside and outside the coalition. Though this departure weakens the Ministry for Health in the midst of the pandemic, his image reinforces the PSC’s candidacy and may well pay off in Catalonia as a way to break the deadlock reigning Catalan politics since the independence referendum in 2017.

To conclude, 2020 saw political leaders across the globe join efforts with their political opponents to fight the pandemic, whereas in Spain this has only served as a weapon for political groups to attack each other with. Perhaps it is fair to return to the remarks attributed to Otto von Bismarck that Spain is ‘the strongest country in the world since, century after century, it keeps trying to destroy itself but to no avail’.