By Nathan Allen and Ingrid Melander
MADRID (Reuters) – The surging death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in Spain drove a regional health official to tears on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez predicted an economic slump, urging all to rally in what he called a “war” against the virus.
With nearly 560 deaths, Spain is Europe’s second-worst hit country after Italy and has the world’s fourth highest number of cases, at 13,716 on Wednesday.
In a sign of the mounting emotional pressure, the director of health in the Aragon region, Javier Marion, broke down in tears during a news conference, a video posted online by several local media showed.
Aragon had 13 dead and 226 infected as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Madrid opened an investigation into a nursing home where at least 17 residents have died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, since Friday.
“We have never lived through anything like this. And our society … now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted,” premier Sanchez told a near-empty parliament with just 28 lawmakers and five ministers present to avoid spreading the infection.
Between speeches, a masked and gloved cleaner wiped down the handrails leading to the speaker platform and microphones.
“It is clear that annual GDP will fall. … 2020 will not have 12 months, but 10 or even nine,” Sanchez said, promising though to do everything to guarantee a speedy recovery.
His government announced a 200 billion euros ($220 billion) package on Tuesday to help companies and protect workers and vulnerable groups affected by the crisis.
Spain initially took few steps to combat the crisis, only moving abruptly to shut down shops and curb public life just over a week ago as the number of cases started soaring.
KING’S SPEECH FALLS FLAT
In a rare address to the nation on Wednesday night, King Felipe called on Spaniards to adapt their way of life to beat the virus: “We must all contribute to that collective effort with our attitudes and our actions, however small they may be.”
But during his speech, the streets of Madrid and Barcelona rang out with the banging of pots and pans as thousands of Spaniards showed their displeasure at a time when the royal family faces renewed criticism for their privilege and scandals involving some of its members.
A 38-year-old Uber Eats rider from Venezuela, Dennys Martin Gomez Acevedo, told Reuters that even though he was “a little bit scared” by the disease, he couldn’t stop working.
“The majority of (clients) say, ‘oh thank you, man, to keep working and keep the country going’, and there are others that you can tell are a bit more scared. They open the door and say ‘don’t touch the door, keep a distance for your health and for mine, so we need to manage all these situations.”
As the coronavirus tally worsened, Britain advised all its tourists to leave Spain by Tuesday, while Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya reassured all foreign visitors that the government would help them return home.
She asked the 2.7 million Spaniards living abroad to stay where they are, adding that those who wanted to come back would be screened.
Inmates at a migrant detention center in Madrid climbed onto the roof and began a hunger strike to protest over the authorities’ failure to contain the outbreak, according to a letter published by an NGO that represents the migrants.
Police on Wednesday requisitioned some 69,000 surgical masks and more than 5,000 protective goggles and gloves to be transferred to health workers. Some 73 people have been arrested for breaching restrictions on freedom of movement.
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(Additional reporting by Inti Landauro, Emma Pinedo, Juan Medina, Jesus Aguado, Jessica Jones, Raul Cadenas, Julien Hennequin; Writing by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)