Silence… But not just any silence, but those that precede gravity, that accompany it, that protect it so that it does not go beyond its worst limits. It was that silence that occurred when Pedro Sánchez decided to cease all non-essential economic activity within the state of alarm, after a meeting in La Moncloa at the end of March. This is how Fernando Simón remembers it, the expert, the non-politician, the intruder, who had just assumed a fundamental role in the already evident crisis and its consequences. He sat next to the President of the Government and various positions in command. And said:
—If measures are not taken to reduce the risk, we could reach hundreds of thousands of deaths and the collapse of the health system.
Sánchez had asked his opinion again while the situation in Italy was overflowing. That storm shadow was approaching everywhere. They needed to act with the forcefulness of a surgeon.
« Doctor, how do you see it? »
Simón had been warning him for days, after preparing with his team from the Center for the Coordination of Health Alerts and Emergencies (CCAES) the possible scenarios in the midst of a global escalation of increasing drama. He repeated that again. It was then that the Prime Minister spoke and made the decision that entailed tightening the confinement and further paralyzing the country’s economic activity.
“At that moment,” says Simón, “I felt 300 kilos of stones fall on my back. I also put myself in his shoes and thought: What a value this guy has!
There that silence made its way, as a confirmation of a closed country, within a continent on the way to being sealed, part of a world looming over the abyss of uncertainty.
Fernando Simón was there…, as the great Manuel Chaves Nogales would say when he spoke of the unexpected witnesses of history at the beginning of the 20th century. Almost accidentally, but, at the time, in the place for which this doctor from Zaragoza, who will turn 57 at the end of July, had prepared himself in case one day, in his worst calculations and within a developed country, he had a extremely pessimistic circumstance. That, specifically, that suddenly became the strict and terrifying reality. He was there, in the same room where the hardest decisions were made — those that affect people’s lives and futures — issuing warnings that lead to that end: which no one wants but no one can avoid. “In situations like this, you can only think about what you can do. Forget what you want, get it out of your head, it doesn’t make sense ”.
Probably that morning in March he would have arrived at the Ministry of Health on his motorcycle around 7.30: a Suzuki that he bought years ago from a friend for 1,000 euros. « I like to fix what is not broken, not to throw away, » he says. He would have dismounted from his metallic horse, removed the helmet and the leather jacket, older than the motorcycle: “I bought it in 1991 and it is perfect. It cost me 50,000 pesetas back then [unos 300 euros]”. He went up to the CCAES headquarters, as almost every day after Ana Mato, when she was minister with the PP, appointed him director of the organization in 2012. A headquarters in which El País Semanal has spent two days with the doctor and his team , which currently make up 15 people between doctors, biologists, nurses, data experts …
Simon, with one of the gifts they send him. James rajotte
From there, Simón has faced several crises. The most notorious, that of Ebola, in 2014. In Spain there were no deaths and only one contagion. It made noise, but it cannot be compared with what the coronavirus has meant. This year it is already clear that covid-19 has no comparison with any of the previous health alerts and disasters: “Since the beginning of the 21st century, we expected a great pandemic. It arrived ”, assures Simón.
The second week of March, he and his team members had not been off for several days. In the most critical moments, the CCAES came to be made up of 24 people. All of them needed unprecedented strength to cope with a strenuous work rate. Day after day, dawn after dawn, weekend after weekend. They had to prepare for the most titanic fight of their careers. “Without them we would have gotten nowhere. Here are the largest in their field in our country and with the best world contacts to manage us. On March 9, we found that the situation was out of control. The context in Italy warned us of what was coming our way ”.
« And why not before, with the signals coming from China? » Western pride?
« We thought we knew more, that we knew enough to control it. » But the reality is that we don’t detect it fast enough to stop it.
Simon wields it by way of repentant mea culpa. It refers to Spain, but also to the rest of the EU. Experts from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control underestimated the real risk in the more than controversial meeting held on February 18, when the pandemic was about to break out in Italy. « There we began to assess different possible scenarios, » says Simón. But not enough, certainly. « Honestly, I don’t know how many infected numbers were moving in my head then, but they never reached the almost 250,000 we now have in Spain. »
The fear, aside from obvious mortality, was sanitary collapse. At that point, the doubt, the turbulent doubt, consisted of knowing how many cases were already circulating in Spain. How much could the avalanche be done? The question is very simple. Did the system crash?
Simon thinks about it.
-Not. At the national level, no. In some specific points, almost. But there was a reaction capacity before that. There was a period in which 55% of the beds occupied throughout Spain were occupied by coronavirus patients.
Today, its greatest concentration falls on sprouts. The first day that El País Semanal entered the CCAES after lifting the state of alarm, there were active numbers of 13. The most strenuous tension has dropped. Simón has spent three weekends in which he has been able to stay at home. « And sleep, sleep a lot, » he says. Regain sleep. Carry the necessary strength for his lean body that long ago fought on the rugby fields and today slides down ravines in another of his hobbies: climbing.
Simón, at the CCAES headquarters with some of the 15 members of his team. James rajotte
In permanent contact with the autonomous communities, and pending outbreaks, Simón also takes stock. On the table in his office are many folders stacked, although somehow in order. One of them is entitled Future World. Containing? « Ah, that’s secret. »
He enters and leaves the office while he leaves us there, with the risk that this implies in the face of the journalist’s curiosity. But, by nature, he trusts. Future projections. Perhaps, like the ones he envisioned a decade ago. « 10 years ago, when we made preparedness and response plans, we put ourselves in the worst possible case for a developed country, and that is basically what has happened, » he says. Also, hopefully, in that folder the solutions, strategies and paths are specified so as not to lead to disaster again. Meanwhile, Simón measures, reflects, and thinks about the strategy that was possible. Count and count, examine data. “In themselves, they don’t mean anything. First, you must know and check the sources where they come from, they must be reliable. And then use them for specific purposes. Producing data is something very complex, much more than managing it ”.
– To what extent can we trust them and the ones that are being used?
There is something about Simon’s reaction to that point that indicates that he is not comfortable. The hesitation in some phases of the crisis management and the change in the measurement criteria have earned him severe criticism. He would like to apply to politics or communication the scientific sense that his team tries to give to the data.
– What else gives a higher figure than another or lower when we talk about 28,000 victims? Change something? Some journalists already say it, that one death is news and a thousand already become statistics. Data is useful if it helps to understand the problem and solve it. Our work is not about individuals, but about populations. We have composed the puzzle with what the autonomous communities provided us. Our obsession has been with each of them to check if they were reliable or not. They have all done and continue to do exceptional work.
In that coordination with the autonomous communities, the doctor has surely applied many rules of his character. And a team spirit based on going beyond the limits. « I do not have it. I don’t think anyone has them. And if they exist, you have to try to forget about them, not give them the slightest opportunity. The limits are to be skipped, like dogmas ”.
Here is a summary of what has been its vital essence. “At all times, he has done what he wanted to do. But always as a public servant ”, says Salvador Illa, Minister of Health, who has had time to get to know him very closely and in extreme situations. A virtue has characterized both these months: serenity. A serenity that seemed to rub off between them.
« I couldn’t lose my cool, » says Simón. “When you have to transmit dramatic scenarios to those who have to make decisions, so that they really understand what is important, you must do it very calmly. But in that security you are also obliged to show the doubts or the uncertainty that fits in each of the possibilities ”. In this, the doctor shows experience. Also psychology, something that undoubtedly comes from his conversations and admiration for his father, a psychiatrist, who is 89 years old today. “He has been an incredibly vital man, who has managed to recover from two blows, twice a widower. He asks me a lot, at times he feels worried about me, and at times, proud ”. Simon’s mother, the second of six children, died when he was eight years old. « You feel responsible towards the little ones, inevitably. »
Fernando Simón goes down the stairs of the Ministry of Health, where he works. James rajotte
The extreme situations have been lived thoroughly. His experience as an epidemiologist has taken him to Burundi, Somalia, Tanzania, Togo or Mozambique. “When you have to go to a hospital in Beira (Mozambique) to control a cholera epidemic and you see, as soon as you arrive, that the medical team is useless because they do nothing but cry, what do you do? Well, convince them that despite the fact that a hundred died they have saved thousands, thus giving them back their morale ”.
He also toured Guatemala and Ecuador. He passed through the classrooms of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in the United Kingdom, and the Institute of Health Surveillance in Paris. He has moved almost everywhere with his wife, María Romay-Barja, and their three children. It was in Paris where, apart from learning management of different scenarios, he signed up for some communication sessions with other colleagues. “We quit quickly, it seemed absurd to us. They were obsessed with transmitting to us what they call the win-win strategy, that we eat each other like sharks. They based everything on the image, they even told us what kind of clothes we could wear ”.
There they asked him about his hair and he replied, like now: « I stopped combing my hair when I was 15 years old. » And regarding his appropriate clothing tones, they probably did not include gray or all the blue variants that he has shown throughout his appearances in the catalog. With unironed shirts, in addition, to great honor: “The iron was useful because at one point it served to kill bugs. When washing machines and detergents have been invented that can handle that, it has become an element of appearance and dominance. Who irons? Women, generally. In my house, I don’t even know where the iron is ”.
Their way of communicating does not appear in any manual to use. Why has this man become a pop icon who is made T-shirts, gifts sent to his office, including busts sculpted with his face? Why does this man generate in some a confidence that overwhelms him and a hatred in detractors whom he despises or does not dedicate an iota of his time to? Probably because he doesn’t stop for a moment to pose. Nor does it calculate strategies. He does not use social networks. “There is confusion regarding press conferences: I do not speak for journalists. I am addressing the population ”.
Thus he manages, with disheveled wardrobe, not rigorous shaves, a fuss in his hair and eyebrows that he does not even think to cut, carving out a strange complicity with part of the public. Dressed in sweaters to walk around the house and jeans, he gave way in the appearances of the most critical weeks to the military and police forces or civil guards with medals and stripes that obeyed and waited for him, more hippy than executive, more casual than martial, give them turn. « In fact, I have tried not to learn any protocol, it is not going to hit me, » he says.
Simón, on a terrace on Calle de las Huertas. James rajotte
Salvador Illa includes among the innate gifts of Simón communication and leadership: “In this sense, he has the virtues that the experts teach and many, despite their efforts, do not succeed. To that he joins a charisma with his teams that is also natural, and, above all, that he is a good person. There is no doubt about that when you treat it. » The only thing that has bothered Illa in these months has been the following: “Her mania for the motorcycle… I had to get serious about that. In days of great stress, of a lot of risk, I did not find it funny that he traveled by motorcycle. I’ve told him. I have not even ever let him use it when we moved to La Moncloa. Get in the car, Fernando, please! ”.
But the journeys in Suzuki, for Simón, day by day, are those intimate spaces with air that he uses to think: “When you get to the office, unfortunately, many times you don’t have space to reflect, to stop and examine things quietly. I do that on the bike ”.
Minister Illa wanted to take care of him so much in the dark days that one of the worst news he remembers today is when Simón contracted the virus. « Fortunately it was a few days, » says the head of Health in his office. He even remembers when he tested positive: March 30. But Simón, during his convalescence, remained attentive to the situation. In his case, it was mild. “I didn’t even realize that I could have contracted it. I attributed it to fatigue ”. Curious … The person in charge of diagnoses, confused by his own symptoms. “I had a night with a bad cough and a day with a fever, nothing more. My children left my food at the door, they behaved luxuriously. And the neighbors even brought us torrijas, which was almost Easter. I don’t know how I can thank him ”.
Simon returned to his post on April 14. Confinement measures were beginning to pay off. Why has covid-19 caused so much havoc on Spanish soil? “I like to analyze what has happened throughout the territory,” Simón replies. “Its impact at the national level has been highly skewed by what has happened in Madrid and Barcelona. It is logical, they are the front doors for most people. Then, it affects the surrounding towns. For this reason, along with Madrid, neighboring regions have been most affected. Furthermore, Spain is, along with Japan, the country with the longest life expectancy. Therefore we have a very old population with which the virus has been primed. That explains, to a large extent, our situation ”.
A scenario that judges already under control. But who does not know to what extent it will still take its own bill. He believes that by dint of acting he has barely had time to digest what he experienced and that comes out clearly on his face: when he speaks of the most tragic and the most heroic, his eyes are enraged. “When you find yourself in situations like this, you mourn each of the dead, you take them to the depths. You also think about what you have come to avoid. But I’m not stupid: what bothers me are those 28,000 deceased. I do not accept them! I have seen people die, many people, every day, in the countries where I have had to fight. Young women who stay in a delivery room with six children and you know positively that those children do not have a father to take care of. You suffer. We epidemiologists come from home crying. We have armor to endure. These months I have cried, perhaps less than I would have thought, and many times, apart from the dead, for the living. For those quiet heroes, for the confined people who have lost almost everything and pay for this badly. For those who without owning anything take a plate to the neighbor because he has even less. Those are the ones that really excite me… ”.
Simon stops talking. The eyes, so clear in their grayish hue, red. The hoarse voice, even more cracked. And a reproach for having broken when remembering that moment: « Damn, I’ve already started crying: go to hell! ».
Sitting on a terrace on Calle de las Huertas, next to the ministry, this man who has so many detractors on the networks, during three hours of conversation around a few beers and a tortilla pincho, was continually approached by strangers to give him sincerely thanks. No insult, no bad words. All signs of love and encouragement. “You see, I can hardly go outside, all this overwhelms me and I am infinitely grateful, why me? I just do what I have to do ”.
The fact is that going out with Fernando Simón on the sidewalk is like walking with a celebrity. And he would not have cared, because one of his passions is rock and roll and, specifically, playing bass: “The Beatles, yes, the whole family likes us, but also Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Spanish groups, Juan Perro and before Radio Futura, of course … Or all the singer-songwriters, who can deny that Sabina is a poet? And, of course, Labordeta. Look, I say Labordeta and it gives me goose bumps ”.
The affection receives it; In the face of criticism, especially political criticism, he puts on the raincoat: “I have not done training courses to understand political strategies, but I watch movies and read newspapers… The key to discredit rulers is to attack the experts with whom they work. That can lead to certain scoundrels, but I’d rather not even find out ”. He has his own method against bad intentions: “I make a constant effort to appear foolish and to be surprised by evil. I do not accept it, per se, as has happened, for example, with the buccaneers who in the worst moments have dominated the health market. Now, less, but they exist ”.
Another thing is when those criticisms come from the scientific field: « They hurt more. » Is it perhaps because of what Pedro Alonso, the greatest expert in the fight against malaria, said when he said that things had not been done well here? Did you feel expressly alluded to? “Pedro is a great expert on malaria, but the health emergency is not his strong suit. Maybe he got carried away a bit for other reasons, although it hasn’t bothered me ”.
That’s where the scientists stick out their stiletto a little, show their claws. Because everywhere, and in their area as well, kicks are thrown. Even so, Simón contemplates what comes with confidence: “I believe that we will be able to control the outbreaks, now we have the means to contain a possible new activation of the virus. Health resources that the crisis had diminished and that I hope we have learned to solve. We must reverse the capacity of our health system, without a doubt. It is one of the main lessons of this situation ”.
With his guard up, he and his family hope to enjoy a few days this year in Caspe (Zaragoza), the town where since childhood he has spent almost all his summers. There you will enjoy something of a light rest never disconnected, between dozens of nephews, brothers, cousins - « we can get together 30 », he says, « we are very family » -, while trusting that the focus that so much It has weighed him these months: « In a while, I know, no one will remember me. »
Fernando Simón, in his office at the Health Alerts Center. James rajotte