Spain vs. Greece and Portugal in the coronavirus pandemic: why two countries so similar have such different numbers

If we have learned anything during these last weeks of the pandemic, it is that all countries "are the same", they all have serious difficulties in keeping the virus under control. But, as Orwell said, some are more equal than others. The emergence of a new virus that is highly contagious and for which no one has immunity is putting healthcare systems around the world on the ropes. However, some countries are suffering more. Much more.

Even assuming the biases, flaws and manipulations that international statistics contain, the differences are so substantial that it is almost impossible not to ask why. Above all, the reasons why countries very similar to us, such as Greece and Portugal, have such radically different figures.

Today we try to avoid the comparative problems to understand what is happening in these two neighboring countries of southern Europe.

Southern Europe, in data

One of the recurring complaints of the pandemic has been, precisely, the lack of information on how the situation was in many parts of the world. In a way, by focusing media attention on the main outbreaks of the epidemic, we have neglected areas that would normally be in the media center. However, the information is there and can help us better understand our own epidemic.

Of course, it is important to approach these types of comparisons with great care. Not only because we are talking about very different countries, with great differences in demographic, social or economic terms, but also because the data (in themselves) is one of the first victims of the epidemic. In Spain we do not know for sure how many people have been tested and the Ministry has been forced to stop giving the daily number of critically ill patients because it is unable to consolidate the data it receives from the autonomous communities.

That in Spain, but unfortunately in this Spain is no different. There are countries that are showing a very high capacity to process data, but all of them have particular problems that prevent them from fully understanding what is happening; Let's not talk about comparing them without precautions. However, we can reduce noise and try to construct comparable metrics to understand the most important movements of the evolution curves. That is what we have done.

In the first graph of this article, we can see the evolution of those infected. Spain and Italy lead the graph while (very low) Portugal appears, with a timid growth, and Greece, almost without any growth of cases. However, as we see in the second graph, this is an effect, above all, of the population. Italy has six times more population than Portugal and Greece; Spain just under five. As we adjust for population, we see that both Spain and Portugal have more worrying outbreaks than they seemed. Greece, for its part, is still very low.

However, we have already spoken many times that line scale graphs are useful to get an idea of ​​the size of the problem, but they are not so useful to see the trend. And, in fact, as we move to a logarithmic scale, we see that the four countries are moderating their exponential growth and that, in effect, Portugal has had a less intense evolution but similar to Spain or Italy. The Greek case does seem much more controlled.

What has happened in these two countries?


Portugal, for its part, began to take measures (suspension of events and the closure of some educational centers) starting on the 11th, when officially there were only 59 cases in the country. However, and despite the fact that they were previously approved, the bulk of the measures are not taken until the end of that week, on the 16th, with the closure of schools and non-essential stores. The confinement entered into force on the 19th. That same day the first person died in the Portuguese country.

Also from that weekend, in collaboration with the Spanish authorities, the land borders between the two countries were closed. As of today, Portugal has more than 13,000 cases and 380 deaths; However, as we have seen in the evolution graphs, everything seems to indicate that, like Spain and Italy, the epidemic has abandoned the phase of exponential growth (although it is still far from being controlled).


On February 26, a 38-year-old woman from Thessalonica who had just arrived from Milan became the first case of coronavirus in Greece. In the following weeks, the cases began to grow very slowly and always linked to trips to risk areas or already identified cases; until March 11 the country woke up with 99 cases of coronavirus. The next day, the first two cases that had arrived in the country were reported.

The country's authorities had already suspended public events on March 8 and the schools on day 10. On the 15th, the borders closed and on the 16th of the same month they would order to close all non-essential stores. There were already 352 cases and, although in the following days the cases continued to rise, growth was so moderate that the Government was not forced to ban non-essential movements until the 23rd, when it was already evident that the country was going to exceed 1,000 cases in a matter of days.

What are the main differences between these two countries and Spain?

Tatiana Rodriguez

If we take as a reference the day when the first 100 cases were counted, it is indisputable that there are substantial differences: Portugal suspends events, closes schools and freezes stores and non-essential movements four days after reaching that figure. Greece suspended events and closed classes before reaching the figure, but waited four days before closing non-essential stores and 11 days before seclusing the general population. Spain took between 13 and 14 days to do the same.

In a context in which a delay of one day can have very important consequences, this delay could give us important clues as to why the evolutions are so different. However, it is interesting to note that, for practical purposes, the three countries took the measures almost the same day, around March 16. With (sometimes substantial) differences between countries, the truth is that the end of the second week of March seems to be the general starting pistol for the harsh measures of confinement in Europe.

We found a curious effect (and very similar to the one we have observed in our analyzes of autonomous communities): as much as the harsh measures were taken almost at the same time (in response to the uncontrolled outbreak in Italy and the emergence of Spanish) every The country came to such measures at very different stages of the epidemic. What we are meeting, not surprisingly, are very different evolutions.

That same critical week, we wondered if it was too late for Spain to take measures to effectively contain the epidemic. In light of these epidemics and the evolution of the autonomous communities, it now seems clear that they do. However, it is important to bear in mind that everything points to the fact that both Portugal and Greece are "behind" compared to Spain. The evolutions seem clear, but we will have to wait a few more weeks (even a month) to get a global idea.

Image | Pixabay

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