MADRID—On the first Friday in March, Spain was deep into the rigorous hand-washing phase of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, but still about a week away from a lockdown. That night, I met a friend at a quiet tapas bar close to home. Afterward, we went to another bar in the Arguelles neighborhood, a popular late-night haunt for students at several nearby universities. It was the typical Friday pandemonium of people yelling orders, drinks and plates being passed around, and used napkins covering the floor. As I washed down my Spanish omelet with a glass of Verdejo, I looked around and remarked, “This is the perfect place to pass around the virus.”
It would be my last night out for the foreseeable future, yet even at that point, it was pretty stupid to head into any bar, let alone one that crowded. Since then, Spain has become one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with a confirmed death toll of more than 15,000 people. No one can say whether that number might now be lower if authorities had acted more quickly or if people had taken the virus more seriously. But there are still some broad lessons to take from countries like Spain.
First, no one really believes that this virus will affect them until it’s actually killing people in their own country, in their own hospitals. This has played out in country after country. It is part of why too many governments, especially Spain’s, have been slow to take action.