How political infighting is hobbling Spain’s efforts to curb virus

Blighted by the EU's highest number of virus cases, Spain's handling of the pandemic has been hamstrung by political infighting with the latest battle sparked by plans to lock down the capital.

How political infighting is hobbling Spain's efforts to curb virus
Photos: AFP

With new infections spreading like wildfire, the leftwing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Wednesday unveiled a tough new set of restrictions for badly-hit areas, in a move which will see the capital placed under partial lockdown within 48 hours.   

Madrid's regional government has reacted furiously, denouncing the measures as “not legally enforceable” and pledging to take the central government to court, raising the stakes in a bitter political battle that risks damaging efforts to curb the virus.

The government says the situation in Madrid is “complex and worrying,” pointing to figures showing nearly 5,000 new cases notified within 24 hours – or 44 percent of the total diagnosed across the entire country.


But Madrid's top health official Enrique Ruiz Escudero said regional data indicated the situation was “stable” and even improving, accusing the government of peddling “a message of alarm and agitation”.

Although the region has said it will implement the measures, the very public standoff has triggered confusion and anger at the political establishment.

“What we're seeing in Madrid with this terrible struggle… is absolutely criminal. Because we're not talking about playing with the economy, we are playing with the lives of many citizens,” said Euprepio Padula, an expert on
political leadership.   

“The enemy is not your political opponent, it's the virus,” he said.    

“It is an absolutely ideological fight that has nothing to do with the objective data which is clearly terrible.”

Spain is currently struggling with the highest number of new cases within the EU with a rate of around 300 per 100,000 inhabitants — but in the Madrid region, the rate currently stands at more than 730 per 100,000.

'Let the scientists decide' 

On the streets of Madrid, many were unclear about how exactly the partial lockdown would work, and expressed anger that the politicians seemed more interested in fighting each other than battling the virus.

“They're setting a pathetic example. At the end of the day, what matters is the common good, is saving lives,” said 45-year old Virginia Huerta who works for a communications agency.   

“It should be scientists in charge and not politicians, so that they could fix the situation,” she told AFPTV.

And the situation also infuriated healthcare professionals in a region where one in four hospital beds and 42 percent of those in intensive care are taken up with coronavirus patients.   

“Once again, we as citizens and healthcare staff are witnessing with astonishment these political battles which, at the end of the day, have nothing to do with the real problem,” Tomas Cobo, deputy head of the Spanish Medical Colleges Organisation, told Spain's RNE radio.   

“Let the experts and not politicians oversee these hard-hitting decisions.”

A costly fight

Unlike in other European countries where politicians from across the spectrum have agreed to take a united front against the virus, Spain's political establishment has been bitterly divided since the start, with Sanchez's leftwing government under fire over its management of the pandemic.   

Further problems arose when the national state of emergency ended on June 21st and responsibility for public healthcare was passed on to Spain's 17 autonomous regions, with political point-scoring ultimately harming efforts to contain the pandemic.   

“You can see clearly by looking at what's happened in other countries like Italy or Germany where they haven't had political infighting between the government and opposition parties, or regions and the central government, that the pandemic is more under control,” said expert Euprepio Padula.   

Last week, Madrid's former health chief Yolanda Fuentes, who resigned in May over a disagreement with the region over its virus strategy, tweeted a clip from “Titanic” of the captain shutting himself onto the bridge alone as ship foundered, with the hashtag: #Goodluck.   

Paloma Roman, a political scientist at Madrid's Complutense University, warned that widespread unhappiness and mistrust of politicians risked “exploding into a social conflict”.

“Time is passing and we have to act quickly but it's not happening, it is very discouraging for the citizens,” she told AFP.

“When people no longer feel fear, this could explode, because they'll say: if I don't die of coronavirus, I'll starve.”

By AFP's Hazel Ward

Member comments

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


Gibraltar accuses Spain of ‘gross sovereignty breach’ over customs incident

Gibraltar on Friday accused Spain of a "gross violation of British sovereignty" after an incident on one of its beaches involving Spanish customs agents who were attacked by smugglers, during which shots were fired.

Gibraltar accuses Spain of 'gross sovereignty breach' over customs incident

“The evidence surrounding this incident discloses a gross violation of British sovereignty and, potentially, the most serious and dangerous incident for many years,” said Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in a statement.

The incident happened early on Thursday when a small Spanish customs vessel lost power while pursuing suspected tobacco smugglers off Gibraltar, a source from Spain’s tax agency which is in charge of customs told AFP.

After choppy seas pushed their vessel to the shore, the two officers on board were surrounded by a group of people and pelted with rocks, some of them weighing over three kilos (6.5 pounds), the source added.

The officers fired “shots into the water to try to drive away” the people throwing rocks, a tax office source told AFP, speaking on condition he was not identified.

One customs officer suffered a broken nose, the other fractured bones in his face, he added.

Videos circulating on social media appear to show several shots being fired during the incident, although it was not clear who fired them.

‘Reckless and dangerous’

“Should it be confirmed that Spanish officials discharged their weapons in Gibraltar, such action would be a very serious breach of the law,” the Gibraltar government statement said.

It called the incident “reckless and dangerous, especially in an area of dense civilian population, given the proximity of a residential estate in the area”.

The governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom consider that the events “will require careful consideration as to the nature and level of diplomatic response,” it added.

Gibraltar police and army officers used metal detectors on Friday to search for bullet casings on the beach, images broadcast on Gibraltar TV showed.

Picardo said Spanish law agencies know they can ask Gibraltar law enforcement to continue a chase into Gibraltar but “it would appear that they did not do so in this case.”

Spain’s foreign ministry “categorically rejected” the terms of the Gibraltar government statement as well as the “claims of alleged British sovereignty over the territory and waters of Gibraltar” which it contained.

Spain’s Budget Minister Maria Jesus Montero said the customs agency would “investigate what happened and will demand the necessary explanations”.

Post-Brexit talks

The incident comes as Madrid and London are locked in talks over Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union.

The European Commission and Spain sent Britain, in late 2022 a proposal that would keep freedom of movement along the border of the tiny British enclave at Spain’s southern tip.

About 15,000 people, the majority of them Spaniards, commute daily from Spain to jobs in Gibraltar, which has a population of about 34,000.

Gibraltar has long been a source of British-Spanish tensions. Although Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, Madrid has long wanted it back, a thorny dispute that has for decades involved pressure on the

Tensions peaked in 1969 when the regime of dictator Francisco Franco closed the border, which did not fully reopen until 1985.