Another tragic failure by an EU government blindly following a neo-liberal dogma. Spanish citizens are paying with their lives.
Toni Strubell is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want
Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan Photo Journalist
Catalan President Quim Torra
Photo by Núria Bassa
On Saturday, 20 March, Spain had the dubious notoriety of being the second European state, after Italy, to have surpassed one thousand deaths from the coronavirus. Three days later it is nearing 2,500. The situation appears out of control. It probably did not have to be this way, but is the result of a botched policy by the Spanish government led by the Social Democrats and sadly abated by its coalition partner United Podemos, once the great hope of Spain’s Left. As in most other EU nations this «progressive» government decided to continue on a neo-liberal course, choosing to protect its economy instead of its citizens health. Worse yet, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez appears to be using the crisis to tighten Madrid’s political grip in Catalonia.
Leading the fiasco resulting in Spain now having the world’s fourth largest Covid-19 outbreak is Fernando Simon, the Director of Spain’s Coordinating Centre for Health Alerts and Emergencies, who in the early stages claimed that in Spain the effects of the Covid19 pandemic would be slight. Provinces, such as Catalonia, who were pursuing a more robust policy from day one, have been stymied by the Spanish government’s «State of Alarm» decree, declared on 13 March, by means of which it took from the regional governments their powers in the field of health, so as to take over full responsibility for measures to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. As a direct consequence, all research funds were reallocated to the capital Madrid, while, for example, infectious disease experts such as Catalan doctors Bonaventura Clotet and Oriol Mitjà, as well as other internationally acclaimed research groups, have been left penniless.
What is incredible about the Spanish COVID-19 crisis is that a short while ago the Spanish government permitted citizens of Madrid, where at least a third of Spanish infections and 50% of resulting deaths have been reported and the city government expect 80% of its citizens would contract the disease, to leave the capital to disperse throughout the country. This was in complete disregard of the lessons that should have been learned from China and Italy. Instead a gaping corridor was being kept open for the effective spread of the virus. Could hundreds of deaths – so far – have been avoided?
What made this negligence doubly harmful was that an early Spring led thousands of “madrileños” to swarm – unchecked, unmonitored – to their summer holiday homes, (among them, former PM Aznar and his corrupt wife) on the warm Mediterranean coasts. The early mass exodus to the east was also boosted by the prospect of the popular mid-March Falles festival in Valencia (which was finally suspended). This led to the introduction of the epidemic in those eastern regions, where many of the early carriers are known to have come or returned from Madrid. What is most surprising, though is that Spain’s coronavirus death rate is alarmingly higher than in northern European countries, a factor that one may put down to a chronic lack of meidcal equipment and late decision-making by Sánchez, whose 50-minute March 21 TV speech was as long as it was devoid of any form of coherent content.
In Spain, despite the new so-called centre-left Social Democrat/Unidos Podemos government, the only thing that seems to count for the federal government is maintaining its absolute power over the nation. The Catalan government, which has exhibited a much more robust response to the pandemic, had wished to close down its motorways, airports and ports except for emergency services. The Spanish government forbade this, which meant that the effective circulation of the virus remained largely unchecked.
Already the Catalan government had chalked up success with its policies. The Catalan president, Quim Torra has argued that while Catalonia had control over her health system, the control and confinement of the major affected area, following the examples of China’s Hubei, Austria’s Tyrol and Italy’s Lombardy regions, had proved to have been successful in fencing in the epidemic. This was the case in the Igualada district, west of Barcelona, where all communications were severed to prevent the local population from leaving and all but vital food and health deliveries from accessing the area. Although the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza/Eivissa) with a Social Democrat led government has been authorized to enforce almost total confinement, Catalonia has been stopped dead in its tracks.
Needless to say – as almost always occurs in present-day Spain – the suspicion of political manouevering behind the scenes is inevitable, even in the eyes of today’s less sceptical observers. The ludicrous presence of the Spanish army in the streets (and disinfecting airports that should be closed) and round-the-clock propaganda in favour of a “central, united response” to the pandemic – plus the implicit justification for the suppression of regional control of health in Spain – are all factors that inevitably smack of recentralizing interventionism and especially in reasserting its authority in Catalonia, which is fighting for independence from Spain.
Parallel to this, the Catalan authorities are irate concerning the recent confiscation of vital medical supplies at Catalan hospital by the Spanish militarised police, Guardia Civil, as well as blocking the deliveries to the hospital in corona stricken Igualada. The Catalan authorities furthermore claim that the Guardia Civil has contacted some Catalan companies to find out what material they have in stock and where they are sending it.
Especially ironic, in this sense, was King Felipe’s appearance on TV on Wednesday 18th March (15M viewers). In his speech – met by the protest of thousands beating pans and pots at windows and on balconies throughout the country, the Spanish king unblushingly spoke of the need to “leave aside our differences” (what differences, Majesty?) and to seek an end to the COVID-19 crisis on the basis of “national unity” (sic). Though Bolivia’s Janine Áñez may still be taking the biscuit for her near-medieval handling of COVID-19, King Felipe’s jingoistic rants are probably Europe’s firmest competitor to date.
For King Felipe to have spoken without so much as one passing mention of the fact that his constitutionally immune father was this week exposed for bequeathing €65M of untaxed Saudi bribes to him (having deposited them in a Swiss bank), shows his unparalleled cynicism. There is no doubt that he used the COVID-19 crisis as a perfect smoke screen to downstage his family’s unbridled corruption.
Once again, Spain – and her very sick and increasingly unpopular monarchy – cannot avoid the temptation to cut back on the democratic rights of Spaniards – not to mention those of Catalans and Basques – when the opportunity arises. Certainly, there’s little worry in Madrid that the EU might be kicking up any fuss there. Time will tell if the price they will one day have to pay is the surrender of the crown. Wouldn’t it be most fitting and ironic if this were to be brought on by an innocent virus called “coronavirus” (corona = crown in Spanish)?