By Clifford Kulwin
When I landed in Madrid on September 2, I was ready to roll up my sleeves. Congregations there and in Barcelona invited me to spend the high Jewish holiday season with them.
I knew these communities, but of course I had not been there since before the start of the pandemic. Fortunately, it turned out to be a fun, rewarding and even moving experience. There were questionable linguistic moments but my Spanish prevailed. My rabbinical work has kept me busy. But from the moment I got off the plane, the country’s response to COVID-19 was constantly on my mind. The difference with what I had left behind was obvious.
I looked up Statistics before leaving the house. On the day I left, over 77% of Spaniards had received at least their first vaccination, which is 20% more than in the United States on the same date. The per capita COVID-19 cases in Spain and deaths from COVID-19 were lower. Spain had a particularly difficult start pandemic, so it was surprising.
And the numbers, I found, reflected an attitude. Masks were everywhere. Despite the lifting of the mandate of the outer mask in July, at least half of the people of Madrid and Barcelona disguised themselves just to walk in the streets. Inside, except at a restaurant table, the masking was universal.
And people didn’t complain. No one likes to wear masks, of course, but they weren’t a source of conflict. No slipping under the nose, no arguing with a museum attendant or flight attendant, no newspaper articles about groups or individuals challenging government public health decrees. Everyone followed the rules.
Shortly after I arrived, a friend emailed me, âDo you feel safe there? I answered honestly. “More secure than I am at home.”
Avi Astor, professor of sociology at the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, ââpointed out to me that, unlike in the United States, in Spain, COVID-19 is not a religious issue. âEvangelical Christians who are so outspoken in America are few here and don’t seem to have made it their problem. The Catholic Church openly supports the efforts of the government.
Individual anti-vaxxer cranks appear on Spanish social networks. But they are not organized and they receive little attention.
Astor also noted that in Spain’s more traditional society, multigenerational homes are much more common, many middle-aged people take care of their elderly parents, and “they’re probably more risk sensitive. They don’t want to be the cause of the death of a loved one.
Religious and family life are characteristics of a society, in this case characteristics that serve Spain well. But there are also other differences.
One is Spain’s approach to public health. The government provides affordable, high-quality medical care. Everyone has a personal relationship with a clinic which, in cities, is a short walk from home. Everyone I spoke to said they liked and trusted the system. COVID-19 is a public health crisis, so it is natural for them to follow the lead of the Sistema Nacional de Salud – the national health system.
In the United States, on the other hand, the inequalities and insecurities of our own system, the competing interests of pharmaceutical companies, owners of medical facilities, health workers and, in particular, insurance companies, often sow the seeds of harm. mistrust and cynicism. Institutionally, we were ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic.
But the most significant difference is also the most obvious. Politics.
From the moment President Trump has chosen to ignore science, touting bizarre (and bogus) cures and spreading lies about COVID-19, the politicization of the pandemic is probably the number one reason why more than 700,000 d ‘between us are dead. The impact of his actions and the impact of his influence on his base is unlikely to be fully realized for years to come.
In Spain, on the other hand, as Astor notes, âthe pandemic has not become politicized. It could have. There were major blockages here. Initially, the country did not approach it well. The children couldn’t go out. It was horrible.”
If an opposition party had bellowed, âthe imperial government wants to oppress you, if you believe in freedom, if you believe in individual rightsâ¦â. It is scary to think of what could have happened.
But somehow, after some initial bickering, the crisis has eased entrenched hostilities between the parties that make up the Spanish political spectrum. The group leaders decided – or maybe they didn’t even have to think about it – that now was not the time. And the impact on the Spanish people of seeing their political leaders united, without play, in solidarity, is incalculable.
Much of the Spanish model does not concern us; how we organize our religion and how we organize our families is exactly what we are.
But if we had developed a health care system devoted solely to the physical and mental well-being of Americans, if intelligence, responsibility, and seriousness were hallmarks of our political leadership, the carnage might not have happened. been so serious.
Clifford Kulwin is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Abraham Temple in Livingston.
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