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Spanish doctors forced to choose who should get intensive care

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Intensive-care wards overflowing and new rules dictate that older patients miss out to younger people with a better shot at surviving.

[MADRID] In the emergency room at one of Madrid's biggest hospitals, Dr Daniel Bernabeu signed the death certificate for one patient and immediately turned to help another who was choking.

People are dying in waiting rooms before they can even be admitted as the coronavirus pandemic overpowers medical staff. With some funeral services halted in the Spanish capital and no space left in the morgues, corpses are being stored at the main ice rink.

Intensive-care wards overflowing and new rules dictate that older patients miss out to younger people with a better shot at surviving, Dr Bernabeu said by telephone. "That grandpa, in any other situation, would have had a chance," he said. "But there's so many of them, all dying at the same time."

As Covid-19 sweeps the continent, the focus is turning to Spain with dire warnings for parts of Europe such as the UK that only recently have taken more comprehensive action. The number of fatalities in the country of 47 million people is now rising faster than it did in China, where the virus first emerged, and faster than in Italy, where the disease took hold this month.

Spanish authorities reported another 738 people had lost their lives, making it the deadliest hotspot on Wednesday while elsewhere countries unveiled more measures to deal with the economic carnage. The daily count of fatalities dropped to 655 on Thursday. Spain's total death toll, now at 4,089, already overtook China's this week.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who less than three weeks ago was still brushing off the threat of the virus, has warned the population that most of them have never experienced a threat of this scale.

"Only the oldest, who knew the hardships of the Civil War and its aftermath, can remember collective situations that were harsher than the current one," he said on March 14 as he imposed a state of emergency with loudspeaker drones buzzing around Madrid ordering people to get inside. "The other generations in Spain have never, ever had to face as a collective something so hard," he said.

At La Paz hospital, the sprawling complex of 17 buildings where Dr Bernabeu works, there were 240 people on the emergency room at one point on Tuesday waiting to be admitted. Doctors on the front line are not wearing full protection, just a cotton robe and a mask. They have the recommendation to keep a meter of distance with patients, but that's impossible.

"Colleagues are falling sick around us," Dr Bernabeu said. "I'm a radiologist, I'm not supposed to be in ER, and yet here I am in the trenches."

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