Coronavirus: Spain’s foreign minister hopes health crisis can lead to closer ties with Chinese medical equipment suppliers

Stuart Lau

Spain’s foreign minister says she hopes the Covid-19 pandemic can be the catalyst for a long-term relationship with Chinese medical equipment suppliers, while acknowledging that her country has neglected its public health care system.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Arancha González Laya, who is a former top United Nations trade official, also cast light on how China might redefine its role in the global economy in the wake of the crisis.

“As China has a bigger place in the global economy and in global affairs, it feels it has a bigger stake and therefore it exercises bigger responsibilities,” she said.

“This is what I think could be one of the results of this crisis.”

“China is a bigger part of the world economy; what we need to make sure is that the world economy is a bigger part of the Chinese economy, because this is how we will be able to better manage this interdependence.”

The minister said she also hoped that European Union leaders could work together to tackle the economic implications of the health crisis on member states.

Spain has been badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, reporting 72,248 confirmed infections and 5,690 deaths as of Saturday.

With the situation in Italy, which has reported more than 9,000 fatalities, also grim, there has been growing concern over Europe’s dependence on Chinese supplies of face masks and protective gear.

González said it was “an unfortunate situation” that the Spanish government had to return tens of thousands of coronavirus test kits provided by a company in the south China city of Shenzhen that proved to be less accurate than claimed.

“We have purchased a number of testing kits in Spain from a company in Spain that procured those products from China,” she said.

“They had the European [certification] labels on them, but when our medical services started testing them, they saw they were faulty. We have contacted the company to return those that were faulty … and send us the right product.”

Spain had also sourced supplies from Germany, France and Turkey, she said, but added that the Spanish government had been “working very closely” with the Chinese authorities.

“We identify not just on-the-spot suppliers, but also try to [have] further long-term relationships with a number of suppliers that would be continuously supplying Spain with our needs,” she said, adding that Madrid had recently signed a contract with Chinese suppliers worth US$500 million.

Like Germany and France, Spain described the supply of medical equipment from China as an act of reciprocity, as Europe had offered help to Beijing when the first coronavirus outbreak was reported in Wuhan at the end of last year.

González said she hoped there would be more international cooperation on the development of vaccines.

“It would be much more effective if we were to put all our brains to work on a vaccine, rather than what we are doing today: each one in our corner trying to fast-track a solution.”

While she praised international cooperation at the G20 level, González said there was an urgent need for European solidarity to deal with the economic fallout of the health crisis.

European Union leaders held a series of meetings last week to discuss measures to support their shared economy, but some member states, including Spain, were upset at their failure to agree to additional support for individual economies that have been ravaged by the pandemic.

The current health crisis was not the same as the 2008 financial crisis, González said.

“This is not about a particular sector of the economy failing, and then the economies having to rescue that, like you saw in 2008,” she said.

“This is different. What we see now is basically a standstill of our economy, a standstill of economic activities, and therefore, a standstill of our politics. This is a huge issue.

“We are all going to have to spend a lot of public money, a lot of public spending, into … freezing the economy and employment in order to reignite it when the pandemic is through,” she said.

“We should find a way to mutualise the spending, if you wish, on health as a result of the coronavirus.

“Some [countries] don’t want to hear ‘coronabonds’, they could hear other types of solutions around instruments that exist already,” she said.

“Given the exceptional circumstances we are in, we have to find a response – a fiscal response – that in a way is more than what we have today, because what we have today is not enough to address the exceptional nature of the problem.”

The leaders of Italy, Spain and Portugal have all accused their counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands of being insensitive by sticking to strict financial conditions for the use of emergency funds during a time of crisis.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that his country would not support the issuing of eurobonds, or collective debt shared by the bloc, as it “does not fit with the euro and the euro system”.

“We do think that this is a moment for unity,” González said. “What we are facing is a pandemic. It’s a virus that has no sense of borders, that knows no passport, that just simply spreads from one place to the next.”

Commenting on Spain’s health care system, she said: “One of the lessons that we draw in Spain is that, for too long, we’ve not been paying enough attention to investing in public health, and the public health care system.”

In 2012, the Spanish government, then run by the centre-right People’s Party, introduced drastic cuts to public health care to cope with the economic crisis, with an aim to save €7.3 billion (US$8.1 billion).

“What we are discovering through this pandemic is the importance of investing heavily in public health – in the doctors, in the nurses, in the people – in a way that works to improve and treat our health,” she said.

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