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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Will there be a seventh wave of Covid-19 in Spain?

As Omicron cases drop in Spain, what do leading health experts in the country think the chances are that this sixth coronavirus wave will be the last?

spain seventh wave covid
Spain’s more sceptical epidemiologists haven’t ruled out that another variant could emerge and cause a seventh wave, with Easter pinpointed as a critical moment in the course of the pandemic. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

Back in early November 2021, The Local Spain published an article asking whether there would be a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain.

The article was published before the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant, which explains why at the time there was a fairly optimistic attitude that the fifth wave would be the last, as Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias put it “the virus is (was) cornered”.

Prestigious medical publication The Lancet even went as far as running an article suggesting that Spain was very close to reaching herd immunity.

How quickly things changed once the Omicron strain arrived in Spain in late November 2021. 

Cases spiked every day for weeks, beating daily infection records and reaching an infection rate among vaccinated and unvaccinated that was unprecedented.

In fact, around half of the more than 10 million Covid-19 infections Spain has had during the pandemic have occurred during this sixth wave.

Even though Spain’s high vaccination rate has helped keep the rate of hospitalisations and deaths from Covid lower than previous waves, the sheer number of cases has meant that there are still plenty of people suffering serious Covid symptoms or dying from the disease, most of whom are not vaccinated.

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The rate of vaccination among Spain’s adult population has stagnated at around 80 percent over the past two months, as has the inoculation rate among children since the Covid-19 jab was approved for them last December. Photo: Lluis Gené/AFP

Around seventy days since the arrival of the Omicron variant in Spain, the infection rate is now dropping considerably day by day – even though the incidence remains very high – leading many to believe that it won’t be long before Spain’s 47 million inhabitants can put the sixth wave behind them. 

But what’s next? Has Omicron’s rampant spread throughout Spain and the world meant that this sixth wave will be the last in the country? Do Spanish health experts believe there could be a seventh wave in Spain?

Will there be a seventh wave?

“A new wave may occur but it’s unlikely, at least before the summer,” Francisco Caamaño, doctor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Santiago de Compostela, told ABC.

“And if it does occur, it would not be as intense as the sixth wave”.

However, Caamaño acknowledged that “we cannot rule out the arrival of a more aggressive variant, which expands easily and therefore leads to more deaths”. 

“In such a scenario, within two weeks we would have it in Spain as the transmission of a virus like this would be largely asymptomatic, which is very difficult to stop,” the health expert concluded.

Covid-19 mutations have occurred to a large extent in countries or areas where group immunity is low, which is why Spain’s Public Health specialists point out that they “will not be sure until we are all vaccinated”.

Although the full vaccination rate in Spain currently stands at around 80.9 percent and 48 percent of Spaniards have had a booster shot, only 54.2 percent of the world’s population, 4.23 billion people, have been fully vaccinated. 

The vaccination rate in many African nations is still below 10 or even 5 percent, and the latest figures from our World in Data show a huge contrast in inoculation rates between developed and developing countries. 

Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) health systems director, also believes it will be “difficult for there to be a seventh wave, although there may be some outbreaks”.

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Healthcare workers help a Covid-19 patient to stand up with a medical machine, at Barcelona’s Bellvitge Hospital ICU unit. Milder for most but still highly contagious, Omicron has again filled hospital beds at worrying levels during the sixth wave in Spain. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

“We have seen from the beginning that this pandemic is one of variants and mutations that are emerging frequently,” Bengoa, who is currently a director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao, said. 

“New waves have caught us off guard, the latest being Omicron. What is especially important about Omicron is that it is infecting many people, and as Spain has a very high vaccination rate, this makes it difficult for there to be more Covid-19 waves.”

With governments and populations worldwide desperate for an end to the pandemic, talks over when the virus might be reclassified have intensified. 

Spain has stepped up and wants to lead an international push for Covid-19 to be monitored in a similar way to seasonal flu.

Bengoa agrees with this, but warns against doing it too soon. “If one begins to reason that Covid-19 is like the flu, people will lower their perception of risk and begin to remove their masks, not maintain social distance, etc,” he argues. 

“We can talk about comparing it to the flu when we are in a more stable and predictable situation, we are not in that situation yet.”

READ MORE: Spain’s health experts divided over whether Covid-19 should be treated like flu

The general consensus among other epidemiologists in Spain is similar – another wave as serious as the sixth one is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean Covid-19 will disappear.

Joan Carles March, a professor at the Andalusian School of Public Health (EASP), agrees that “in all likelihood there will be future outbreaks”, although he isn’t sure the situation will be serious enough for it to be referred to as a new Covid wave.

“Last August, I was sure that we would have a sixth wave as I saw that we were beginning an autumn in which we would spend more time indoors, which increases the risk of infection.”

Previous coronavirus waves in Spain have tended to develop during or directly after periods of increased social interactions such as Christmas. 

There are other less optimistic health experts who believe that if there were to be another coronavirus wave in Spain, this could develop during Easter week in Spain, coming up in mid-April.

César Carballo, doctor at Madrid’s Ramón y Cajal Hospital told La Sexta TV channel in late January that “there are still 50 percent of people who haven’t been infected with Omicron yet” and that if politicians do nothing to remedy the situation, there will be a seventh wave by Semana Santa (Easter). 

National and regional governments are in the process of easing restrictions currently, with the most notable change being the decision for face masks to no longer be mandatory outdoors. 

“It’s what Einstein used to say, it’s madness to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”

Other practitioners are also sceptical. “There’s a sense that there is a retention of mutations, but this is unknown and we have no evidence that another variant may not exist and appear, one that can lead us to a seventh wave,” Lorenzo Armenteros, spokesperson for Spain’s Society of General Practitioners, is quoted as saying by Andalusian daily Sur. 

“There is one thing to highlight and that’s that Spain is one of the countries in the world that has had the most epidemiological waves, because different cultural factors and idiosyncrasies intervene.”

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UKRAINE

This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

For those of us living in Europe now, this is a scary and dangerous time, writes The Local's James Savage. The threat from Russia leaves European leaders with no easy choices, but peace and democracy in Europe depend on what they do next.

This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

The Russian army is invading Ukraine, putting an official stamp on a conflict that its President Vladimir Putin started when unmarked troops entered Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The consequences for Europe are potentially devastating.

In a bizarre and sinister speech televised this week, Putin denied Ukraine was ever a real country, falsely claiming it as “historically Russian land” that had been stolen from the Russian empire. Meanwhile, the enormous Russian military buildup in Belarus seems to have snuffed out any hope of real Belorussian independence for the foreseeable future. 

These are not faraway countries about which we know little. For Germans, Scandinavians and Austrians, these are our near-neighbours. Ukraine is part of the wider European community, many of us have friends there. Their previously comfortable, normal lives are now threatened by Putin’s self-indulgent fantasies about Russia’s position in the world.

From my vantage point in Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia can often feel like another world, but as the crow flies, the naval port of Karlskrona in southern Sweden is closer to Belarus than to Sundsvall in central Sweden. The highly-militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer still.

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Ukraine and Sweden have deep historic and cultural ties; there have even been small Swedish-speaking communities in Ukraine since the 18th century. For Germany, Poland, Austria and other central European countries, bonds across borders broken by the Cold War have become strong since the collapse of communism.

Nobody knows what Putin will do next if he successfully occupies Ukraine, but he has been opining constantly about the ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ of the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is bad news for three former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, once subjugated by Moscow but now part of the EU and Nato. They are modern, sophisticated countries, which identify far more with the Nordic countries than their former Russian occupiers.

Any attempt by Putin to invade the Baltic states should trigger Nato’s Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. Some military experts warn that if Putin decides to attack these countries, he might first occupy the strategically-placed Swedish island of Gotland, a claim that was illustrated by Russian military exercises in 2013, when according to Nato it simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden.

Russia’s aggression has led to calls for Sweden to join Nato, something that would give the country protection, but would also draw unwelcome attention from Moscow. A poll in January showed support for joining was at 35 percent, higher than support for staying out. But many Swedes, especially among the ruling Social Democrats, have long opposed Nato membership, partly out of a strategic calculation that it would put Sweden at greater risk, partly out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and partly because they have talked themselves into a belief that someone would always come to their aid if attacked. So far, Sweden’s government is affirming that it will stay out of Nato, but Ukraine’s experience might at least lead some Swedes to review their support for that stance.

Calls for joining Nato have also been growing louder in Finland, as alarm grew over Putin’s aggression. This is understandable, given that Putin has also lamented Russia’s pre-Soviet territorial losses, which could be read to include Finland, which became independent in 1917.

What is happening now has been predicted by some experts for years. Russia spent most of the past decade slicing off bits of neighbouring countries, in Moldova, in Georgia and in Ukraine. It was never inconceivable that he would go further. But the west, after imposing some mild sanctions, mostly turned away and hoped that Putin would stop there, despite continued hostile Russian military exercises and bellicose rhetoric from the president. 

Former politicians including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and disgraced former French Prime Minister François Fillon, took Putin’s rouble and became his mouthpieces in the west. Even today, Fillon was blaming Nato expansion for Russia’s aggression. Germany naïvely let itself become dependent on Russian gas. Britain let dirty Russian money pour into London, its political parties and its tax-haven colonies around the world, even as Russian agents murdered British citizens on British soil. We all let Russian propaganda channels pollute our airwaves. As recently as yesterday, Britain’s Guardian was embedding tweets, uncommented, from Russian propaganda outlet Ruptly. The tweet itself was innocuous, but the source was anything but.

Russia also got away with direct interference in democratic processes in elections in France, the US and many other places, and there are well-founded reasons to believe it also interfered with the Brexit referendum in the UK. People who raised the alarm were dismissed as paranoid or Russophobic. 

For those of us living in Europe now, these are scary times. We have no easy choices. But we have tried appeasement, we have let our politics be corrupted by Russian money, we have neglected our defences, and we have been slow to tackle Russian propaganda. We need to tackle all these issues now, as though peace and democracy in Europe depended on it. Because they do. 

James Savage is Publisher of The Local Europe

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