Italy And Spain Have Been Particularly Hard-Hit By Coronavirus, Here’s Why

Both cultures value affection, touching, and close contact.

Military Emergency Unit (UME) soldiers arrive at the departure terminal to disinfect the Barcelona Airport
David Ramos / Getty Images

Both cultures value affection, touching, and close contact.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has hit Spain and Italy especially hard, and both countries’ cultures, which value communal gatherings and lots of affectionate touching, may have played a role, Yahoo News reports.

Spain, which has a population of 46 million, has endured nearly 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as well as 1,326 deaths due to the virus, according to Worldomoters. Italy, with its population of 60 million, has seen 47,000 cases and just over 4,000 deaths — including 627 people who died in a single day in that country. By comparison, the United States, with a population of 328 million, has so far seen 19,000 cases and 276 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

A few disclaimers could be helpful to consider. First, as this is a fluid situation, these numbers change by the minute. Second, the coronavirus pandemic reached Europe before it fully exploded in the United States, so the U.S. could see a surge of cases in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the respiratory illness is troubling Spain and Italy.

CREMONA, ITALY - MARCH 20: Medical personnel transport the first patient affected by COVID-19 to an ICU tent a Samaritan's Purse Emergency Field Hospital on March 20, 2020 in Cremona, near Milan, Italy. Samaritan's Purse is an evangelical Christian organization working in crisis areas of the world; thanks to a 68-bed respiratory unit, 32 members of Samaritan's Purse disaster response team will provide medical care during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
  Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

Deeply ingrained in each culture is a fondness for communal gatherings, for touching — kisses, face-touching — for eating meals at restaurants and cafés. This can be problematic, according to prevailing medical advice as it stands.

As of this writing, language for blanket social distancing don’t appear in the Spanish Health Ministry’s guidelines, though they do recommend that symptomatic persons keep away from others. Spain has so fair refrained from cautioning its citizens against greeting each other by kissing.

“When you’re talking to people, we recommend keeping a distance of at least [3 feet]. So when you’re kissing or getting closer to people, the risk of transmission is high,” said Dr. Sylvie Briand of the World Health Organization.

Similarly, Spain in particular seems to have been slow to warm up to the concept of avoiding large gatherings. Even as recently as Friday, Barcelona bars and restaurants were packed with customers. At the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, many states in the U.S. ordered such businesses to close.

Barcelona artist Mark Rios says that Spanish border authorities have been proceeding as if nothing is amiss.

“People in Italy were getting sick and visitors were just driving right back over the border into Spain or catching a flight here — with no questions, no temperature monitors, at airports.”

Over in Italy, residents seem to be taking things more seriously as of late. Shoppers wait in long grocery lines, standing at least three feet apart, while guards allow only a few people to enter the premises at a time.

Milaner Katia Maronati says that, for Italians, the highlight of every day is 6:00 p.m., when many citizens across the country gather on their balconies to sing.

Similarly, many Spaniards gather on their balconies at 8:00 p.m. every night, looking to communally applaud the health-care workers trying valiantly to battle this virus. Ships’ horns blare in the distance in solidarity.