MADRID -- The Spanish government has declared 10 days of mourning starting Wednesday for the nearly 27,000 people who have died with the novel coronavirus in Spain, the longest official mourning period in the country’s 4-decade-old democracy.
Flags will be hoisted to half-staff in more than 14,000 public buildings across the nation and on Spanish naval vessels until June 5, under the declaration made Tuesday. King Felipe VI, as Spain's head of state, will preside over a solemn memorial ceremony once the country emerges from the lockdown imposed 2 1/2 months ago, the government said.
The dead are “men and women whose lives have been suddenly cut short, leaving friends and family in great pain, both from the sudden loss and from the difficult circumstances in which it has occurred,” government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero said following the Cabinet meeting where the grieving period was approved.
Opposition parties had criticized Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's left-wing coalition government for not paying tribute to the virus pandemic's victims as Spain's death toll - the world’s fifth-highest after the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and France - became a point of political debate.
Arguing that some unconfirmed virus cases had been erroneously counted, Spanish health authorities reduced the country's official mortality figure by 1,918.
Montero said that 80% of Spain's virus-related deaths were people age 70 or older, "those who helped build our country as we recognize it today, and ultimately laid the foundations of our democracy."
“They might not accompany us physically, but they will remain forever in our memory,” she said.
Flags at half-staff and other expressions of grief have become common around the world during the pandemic.
In Italy, the military’s aerobatic team honored the dead over the past few days, saluting cities such as Codogno, Milan and Turin with flybys. Nightly or weekly applause and singing to honor medical personnel working to save lives has been the most clear expression of collective unity amid personal losses and the isolation of lockdowns.
No other country so far has announced an observance on the scale of Spain's 10-day mourning period, an event unprecedented since the country reinstated democratic rule in 1978. Three years earlier, when dictator Gen. Francisco Franco died, a 30-day mandatory mourning period was declared. Three days of mourning were observed in March 2004 for nearly 200 victims of Al-Qaeda-inspired attacks on Madrid commuter trains.
COVID-19 deaths have become a touchy issue for Sánchez's government since it imposed a strict lockdown on March 14 with the aim of slowing the spread of the virus. In the ensuing 10 weeks, the death toll climbed from 120 to 26,800, and confirmed infections in Spain grew from 4,200 to over 230,000.
Spanish politicians across the political spectrum, left and right, have raced to capitalize on the collective loss.
National flags with a black-ribbon have appeared on the balconies of apartment buildings and in the hands of right-wing protesters, a symbol of the country's loss and of anger over the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Authorities in the hard-hit Madrid, a stronghold of the conservative opposition, put gigantic displays of black ribbons at some of the Spanish capital's main landmarks. As a permanent tribute to COVID-19 victims, local officials installed a cauldron with a gas-powered flame in front of City Hall. A plaque, surrounded by floral bouquets, reads, “Your flame will never go out in our heart.”
In recent weeks, strict home-confinement orders and bans on public activity have eased across the country.
“They should have declared the mourning days ago,” Madrid resident Conchita Hernández, 77, said. Her husband, Agustín Álvarez, 77, compared the Spanish capital’s nearly 9,000 virus-related deaths to the casualties during times of war.
“The mourning would have made more sense when we were all homebound, but I still think it makes a lot of sense,” Álvarez said.
AP reporters Bernat Armangue in Madrid and Colleen Barry in Rome contributed to this report.