ANALYSIS: Why Madrid and not Barcelona is the epicentre of Spain’s coronavirus second wave

Graham Keeley examines why Madrid is faring so much worse than Barcelona in the battle to contain the coronavirus.

ANALYSIS: Why Madrid and not Barcelona is the epicentre of Spain's coronavirus second wave

This is a tale of two cities and how they have coped – or not – with the second wave of coronavirus.

As millions of madrileños prepare to go into a kind of lockdown, the way Barcelona tackled a similar threat says a lot about the interplay between health priorities and politics in Spain.

Back in the sultry summer days of August, Barcelona was at the epicentre of a surge in Covid-19 cases.

At that time, Catalonia had no-one in charge of its health ministry, only 200 track and trace staff and the number of coronavirus cases was rising by the day. In short, it was in trouble.

Then Josep María Argimon was appointed health secretary and assembled a group of experts and asked them what to do.

They came up with three priorities: roll out mass PCR testing, recruit hundreds of track and trace staff as soon as possible and bring in a proactive plan to contain outbreaks as soon as they happen.

Professor Alex Arenas, a public health expert from the University of Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, said: “Quickly, they had 1,100 track and tracers, there were limited restrictions imposed in places like Lleida, Hospitalet and Reus, where there were outbreaks and there was mass testing.

“We are not out of the woods yet but it made a lot of difference.”

Madrid, which accounts for about a third of all Spain's coronavirus cases, is one of the worst-hit regions in Europe.

By Thursday, the number of people who tested positive with Covid-19 in the capital was 695 per 100,000 inhabitants during the past 14 days, compared to 144 in Catalonia, according to Spanish government data. Across Spain the average is 274.82.

In Madrid, 23.66 per cent of beds are being used for coronavirus patients, compared to 5.42 per cent in Catalonia, while the national average is 8.98.

Professor Arenas says Madrid is in a moment of crisis precisely because it failed to take the same steps as Catalonia.

“It has not done the things which have stopped the infection rate rising in Catalonia. It is a problem for all Spain because Madrid is the business and transport hub for the country,” he said.

“The politicians have not followed the advice of health professionals. They have put the economy first. It is a problem in many countries, not just in Spain.”

Angela Hernández, vice-president of the Madrid Doctors' Association, claimed that track and trace is non-existent in Madrid.  

“We have been left to manage on our own and the health centres and hospitals are coming under increasing stress,” she said. 

On the streets of the Spanish capital there is a mixture of confusion about how the regulations will work mixed with anger about how Madrid has reached this point.

“The bars and restaurants were filled last night. It was almost as if everyone was drinking at the last chance saloon,” said one resident.

“It is not really clear when the restrictions will come into force. Will they be from Saturday morning or will the court hold them up at the last minute?”

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the Madrid regional president, has appealed against the restrictions imposed by the government, which could delay their implementation. Watch this space.

It is the latest twist in weeks of bickering between Spain's left-wing coalition government and the conservative authorities running the Madrid regional government.

Eventually, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez imposed his will by issuing a government order on Thursday announcing lockdown measures.

Ayuso said she would obey the restrictions but said the battle is not over. She believes shutting down the capital would ruin its economy.

Inevitably, the row between the politicians has spilled onto the streets.

“Some people who are on the left blame Ayuso for not investing in the health service and putting the economy first while those on the right say it is all Sanchez's fault,” said another madrileño who did not want to be named.

Over on the Mediterranean coast, things are much as normal with bars and restaurants full and people out at night in Barcelona.

“People look at you like you are weird if you are not wearing a mask. It is universal, unlike in Britain. But apart from that, people are out and about so things are pretty normal – except for the fact that there are no tourists,” said Graham Hunter, a British sports journalist who has lived in the city for the past twenty years.

What remains to be seen is whether the partial lockdown in Madrid and nine surrounding towns in the region will contain the spread of Covid-19.

Whatever happens, one thing is perhaps worth remembering.

This may be a lockdown but the restrictions are nothing like the state of emergency which was imposed in March.

People will still be able to move around the city providing they have the correct paperwork.

Having said all that, there is a depressing feeling that nearly 5 million people are back under lockdown – six months after the first state of emergency.




Graham Keeley is a Spain-based freelance journalist who covered the country for The Times from 2008 to 2019. Follow him on Twitter @grahamkeeley .





Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.