Alba Vergés: “The key to success was that the health workers were massively vaccinated”

The ‘ex-councilwoman’ of Salut Alba Vergés reflects in EL PERIÓDICO on the two years of a virus that changed everything

Alba Vergés (Igualada, 1978) was the ‘councilor’ of Salut de Catalunya when the covid-19 pandemic. Two years later, the now First Vice-President of Parliament (ERC) and predecessor of the current ‘minister’, Josep Maria Argimon (JxCat), reflects in EL PERIÓDICO on a virus that changed everything.

What moment do you especially remember from these two years?

Many. At the beginning there was a lot of uncertainty. It was impossible to see the magnitude that it has ended up being. Now we have been two years and we are still in a pandemic, we have not come out. From the beginning I remember that constant monitoring and, above all, that week that changes everything, that begins in one way and ends in another, which is the week of March 9. It started looking like another week, that we would have dropper cases, but we saw that something was happening in Conca d’Òdena, something that was different, and we had to make the decision to confine. That was the first confinement that was made in Catalonia and throughout the State. Also, it was a very close confinement for me [la ‘exconsellera’ es de Igualada]. It was something that had never been done. I had the family there.

I remember that press conference announcing the closure of Igualada, together with the then Secretary of Public Health, Joan Guix.

I think that was the point where everyone realized that what was happening was a reality never seen before. We had to make decisions never made before. And all this mixed with uncertainty.

At what point does Salut realize that this strange Chinese virus is much more than just the flu?

We already knew it before the confinement of the Conca d’Òdena, what we did not know was the scope it could have. I remember the beginning: we prepared a lot in case a case came to us … Sure, you look at it with the perspective of now and my goodness … If in the end thousands and thousands arrived …! Here we were lucky and, as we had the Mobile World Congress scheduled, we began to follow the information before many other sites. Every day I looked at the WHO report, to see if new cases appeared in Wuhan. But, before that week that I was telling you before everything changed, there were very few infections in Europe. Surely many were in hiding, yes … But, despite trying to move forward, the magnitude of this pandemic was unknown then, which continues two years later.

Did Salut follow any communication strategy?

We were very clear that we had to communicate what we knew, what we did not know and to what extent we knew. It was not a question of hiding things so as not to generate panic, but of explaining them and transferring what we knew so far. But we did not want to be alarmist, even though we were really facing something unknown. We try to be very clear with people and treat them as a mature society.

“We communicated what we knew, what we did not know and as far as we knew. We tried to be very clear with people and treat them as a mature society”

Go back to March 2020. How did you imagine we would be two years later?

I think I did not have time to make this reflection. In the beginning I did not think about it. But then you do look at other experiences and see that pandemics always have different waves, and that the first one does not necessarily have to be the biggest. A sign that people were aware of what was happening was that the children understood what was happening. There was no disorientation.

Did you ever think that this would never end?

No. I never thought of that. The historical perspective is very important: pandemics are not exceptions. Within our lives, which lasts a few years, a pandemic is an exceptional event. But within a story, it is not so. All epidemics have a behavior; All the waves rise and fall And you must act to prevent the next waves.

A bit of luck did exist because the vaccine arrived in less than a year.

We knew it would be a turning point. Sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 genome so soon made things very fast.

How do you remember that first puncture at the residence of L’Hospitalet, on December 27, 2021?

With a lot of emotion because we really knew that [la vacuna] it could make a difference. It was the middle of winter, the residences had suffered a lot & mldr; We were very convinced that the strategy started with the people it should start with: the elderly in the nursing homes; later, the toilets. We were organized so that everything worked well. So it was. We vaccinate quickly and conscientiously. At first there was a certain fear when thinking: “What if people do not want to be vaccinated?”

Did you work with this possibility?

Yeah right. We knew that it would be key for health workers to want to be vaccinated because they are the best example for society. That they were vaccinated was very important for people to see that the vaccine is a change in the pandemic. Initially, we organized campaigns with the Official Legislature of Metges de Barcelona (Comb) which in the end were not necessary because from the beginning we saw that it would go very well.

“At first there was a certain fear when thinking: ‘What if people don’t want to be vaccinated?'”

How was the relationship with the Government of Spain during the pandemic?

It depends on the phases. We had not had a relationship before the pandemic, so we had to meet in a very specific context. It was a & mldr; I think very clear. With Minister Illa, we were both clear about our role. When I considered – given that we had the entire organization of the health system – that Health forced us to do more things, I said so. But it was [una relación] very clear and very frank, because it had to be that way.

It was very hard close bars and restaurants a year ago while other communities were fully open?

Everything was very hard, but not only because of what Madrid did or did not do – they also approved restrictions. It is hard to make decisions about how people live, but when you are convinced that you have to make them, that’s the way it should be. We try to listen to the sectors at all times. We always try to maintain the balance so that the pandemic does not get out of hand and at the same time continue to do as many activities as possible. Schools were a priority. We never pose restrictions that weren’t necessary.

Do you miss your position?

(Laughs) Well, some things yes: the team. But now I am living from the Parliament this prioritization of mental health, something that I had already included in my agenda. Now I live it from another point.

“The lesson of the pandemic is that we have a strong health system. Those times of cuts must not return”

When did you really start to worry about the psychological ravages of covid?

I was already starting from the assumption that we had a mental health problem prior to the pandemic. The pandemic caused forced loneliness and this impacts on mental health.

And how should all this be approached?

As it is being done now. From the first moment we said that an emotional management of the pandemic should be carried out. We create tools, we incorporate psychologists …

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Challenges for the future?

I have no doubt about it. The lesson from the pandemic is that we have a strong healthcare system. Therefore, investing in health is positive. Those times of cuts must not return. And, as we have seen with the vaccine, any investment in research pays off. In addition, it is a very positive investment because it improves the health of everyone, not just that of a few. And all of this includes mental health and public health.

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