By Carlos Hernanz Garcia & Raquel Ramos González
The novel Coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, rapidly spread to the rest of the world within the course of a few months to become 21st century’s largest pandemic. It has had a devastating impact on almost every country in the world. While the economic impact of the pandemic has been a major topic of conversation among governments, media houses, as well as citizens, what is the opinion surrounding the social and political impact? A primary survey conducted by our writers shows the opinions held by undergraduate students across different universities in Spain.
The recent events that have desolated Europe in the past three months have meant numerous changes in the lifestyle of the average European citizen. As the contagion spread to every continent (with the exception of Antarctica) and paralyzed multiple economies, several countries in Europe, like Italy, Spain and The UK, became epicentres of the pandemic.
Governments of these countries responded with a number of measures such as enabling a lockdown or, in the case of Spain; declaring a state of emergency which raised some controversy and caused an uproar among the opposition and some of the general population. Most measures taken have children, the elderly or other groups as the main objective, which has made some university students feel left behind. They, thus, voice their complaints pertaining to how these measures have affected the average university student across Spain and other European countries?
Firstly, there is a certain sense of discontentment among the Spanish youth regarding the management of the central and regional governments during the crisis. Primary research suggests that, of 112 university students across Spain; roughly 4.4% of the surveyed fully agreed and 31.9% mostly agreed with the measures taken by the government, and on the flip side; 46% agreed partially, and 17.7% were fully opposed to them. This negative reaction to the measures taken by Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party, Spain’s leftist central government, comes from across the political spectrum. Under these circumstances, there has been some criticism from the right-wing; part of which reproaches these measures not having been taken before, having therefore allowed crowds such as the women’s day march or sports games, and part of which claims that the economy cannot be put on hold anymore, thus following demands to reopen the economy. The left wing negatively critiqued this stance on the reopening of the economy; part of which believes that the measures should be stricter in order to protect the working class, and part of which demands a gradual reactivation of the economy. The reactivation of the economy, also known as “desescalada” (de-escalation) is being made gradually and locally, depending on the ability of the local healthcare system to handle the influx of patients, and of the local population to meet the social distance requirements. This set of measures has had a positive response from our surveyed Spanish students; 81.4% of which agree with the actual model of de-confinement. This general agreement is due to the gradual recuperation of the economy, not jeopardizing the lives of the Spanish. Some people disagree with the actual model of de-confinement. Some parties, especially the right wing have protested against these kinds of measures claiming that it is taking away their freedom and destroying the economy. Some other parties, especially the left wing have criticized the rush some autonomous communities like Madrid have had in passing on to the next phase. The Spanish population is fairly divided among unionists and secessionists from different regions, but also politically speaking, 74.3% of the surveyed believe this crisis has not led to a unified country, against a 25.7% that believe it has. Furthermore, the youth’s political tendencies throughout this crisis do not seem to have experienced significant changes. Of all the surveyed, only 3.5% changed their political views due to the crisis, 16% do not have an opinion on the matter and, 80.5% of the surveyed continue to hold the same political views. This indicates an active involvement of the youth in politics. When it comes to mental health, psychologists in Spain have heeded a warning about its consequences due to the lockdown, which is an opinion and perspective shared by university students. 60.2% of the surveyed believe that the pandemic and lockdown have worsened their mental health, which has most likely been attributed to the pressure students are undergoing from the university. There is a generalized sense of discontentment regarding the measures taken by the educational institutions to cope with the restrictions, due to several reasons, some of which have been mentioned below. Roughly 21.2% of the surveyed fully agree with the measures taken by universities, 18.6% only agree with the deliverable assignments, 12.4% only agree with the online exams and 47.8% fully disagree with the measures taken. 25.7% of the surveyed have considered dropping out of university and 8.8% have thought about dropping out of specific subjects. Some students (18.6% (Translation of the picture: Do you agree with the modes of conducting online exams, homework ) of the surveyed) do not have a stable WiFi connection at home. About 48.7% of the universities have not offered help of any kind to students and 30.1% did offer the help, but they faced a backlog of lectures and it was too late for the students to catch up. Some people have criticized the central and regional governments claiming that there has been a lack of action from them. This inaction is defended with the reasoning that universities are self-directed and, this has brought some backlash from many people who believe the ministry of universities are counterproductive. The perception of the crisis in Spain, however, seems to look a bit different from the outside. To get a sense of how Spanish people living abroad perceive the situation, we interviewed Estefanía Quiñones, a Spanish drama student living in the UK: - Q: Which government do you think has done better? The British or the Spanish? - A: Spain’s. The British government took a long time to establish quarantine measures, and barely have any information. For example, in the UK it is not mandatory to use a mask, it has only been suggested. It does not seem logical to me. - Q: Has the Spanish embassy eased your return to the homeland? What difficulties did you come across? How was it to reach the airport? - A: I had no contact with the embassy because you are the one that has to contact them if necessary. I returned on March 19th. I was too scared. I was expecting more controls before taking the flight such as temperature or mask checks. There were passengers using masks on board and in both airports. I noticed that there were fewer flights, and when we were on board, the cabin crew did not offer anything from the cart, but apart from that, everything went completely normal. I have a friend who returned to Romania and had to complete 14 days of isolation after arrival. I think that the measures were implemented later than what was said according to the media. - Q: Did you have to go through any sort of medical testing before or after getting on the plane? - A: Returning from England, nothing, and the people who were doing stop-offs neither. In England there wasn't a state of emergency yet, all that was said were rumours. There was fake news circulating on Whatsapp which said that the state of emergency was going to be implemented on March 19th, the same day I was coming back to my country. - Q: Has your university adapted to the different time zones among the different international student’s countries? - A: No, because all the students from my degree are European. Exactly, I was the only one who had a time-zone difference of an hour. The university gave online lectures and in some subjects, we passed with no grading methods because they were too practical to do at home. Instead, we have had to do essays or make videos. - Q: Were Spain to allow international travel, having in mind the contagion situation in the UK, would you fear retaking your life as you used to before the pandemic? - A: Probably yes, but my university is planning on doing blended lessons. I would only go out if it was required by the performance of the subject. The situation does not seem to differ much in other European countries. The measures taken by the universities of the 21 students from different European countries surveyed are depicted as follows: Politically speaking, the perception of the measures taken by local governments improves in other countries different from Spain, as there is no full disagreement on the measures taken by local governments. This is the outcome of the survey we conducted when asked the same question as their Spanish peers: Tourism is key to most European countries. Several countries such as Italy and Spain, where tourism is an essential service which makes the third or tertiary pertinent. These sectors have suffered losses of millions with the global travel inactivity. With several of these countries being hotspots for the virus, tourists hailing from around the world, are hesitant to travel to some of these tourist-harbours and are instead choosing a tourism corridor. About 52% of the surveyed believe they would be afraid to visit a country that has been an epicenter of the pandemic in the near future. To palliate the negative effects of the lack of tourism, while still meeting the safety standards required by the governments, some towns like Platja d’Aro, in Catalonia have implemented public health measures in touristic areas in order to ready the country to re-establish itself for tourists who will come in summer. The way Europeans travel is expected to change drastically in the near future as the EU becomes a borderless reality with about 70% of the Spanish population now favoring local tourism to international travel. One polemic measure used in such cases are eurobonds. Eurobonds are financial bonds issued by Eurozone countries that help lower borrowing costs for countries with a weaker economy such as Spain or Italy. These have been used throughout history and are usually done in foreign currency such as the US dollars or Japanese yen. Ever since some of these economically weaker countries suggested receiving financial aid from these eurobonds, some countries that are economically better off, like Germany or The Netherlands, have heavily opposed the measure alleging easy access to cheap credit. The debate was also quite active on social media amongst the youth as tensions among northern Europeans and southern Europeans arose. One viral video sparked tensions on social media where Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of The Netherlands, known for his skepticism against these kinds of measures, laughed at a garbage collector’s comment saying, “Please do not give the money to the Spaniards and the Italians." It seemed as the general view shared by Europeans about Spain, outside of it was negative, we wondered if university students around Europe shared this point of view, as well. Out of all the people surveyed, a major chunk did not hold an opinion on the matter, mostly due to a lack of information; but there was also a significant positive response. A considerable group of respondents complained that the EU could have done more to help these countries; To quote one such respondent, from Thuringia, Germany, ‘Germany has taken in some critically ill patients from other EU countries, which I think was one step in the right direction. Especially since we‘ve got the capacity for now, i and others don‘t. But in my opinion there should be more support. We are all in this together, we‘ve got to help each other.” We did not receive any negative responses on the matter, which makes us think that contrary to national politics, the average European university student either approves these kinds of measures or is just not informed on the matter. Based on all the data analyzed and all the opinions gathered, it can be seen that COVID-19 has affected the lives of university students across Europe, especially those living in places that are or have been considered to be epicenters of the pandemic; not only with a change in their lifestyles, but also in the way they perceive regional and centralized politics and how their mental health has evolved. As we foresee a massive economic recession that will affect the financially vulnerable the most, with tourism and local commerce being fundamental sectors for the Spanish economy to sustain, supporting local businesses and travel, the economic recovery can speed up, and the most vulnerable would recover more smoothly. Instead of having the media scare the population away from local business for sensationalist purposes, they should focus on encouraging customers to invest on small businesses and governments should aim at protecting these from closing.