OPINION: Will Spain learn from its mistakes in 2021?

OPINION: Will Spain learn from its mistakes in 2021?
Photos: AFP
Can Spain use its EU coronavirus recovery fund to solve some of the lingering problems it has with its job market and welfare state, asks Madrid-based writer Brendy Boyle.

As winter turned to spring, Spain went from being one of the world’s most invigorating and uplifting places to a claustrophobic frenzy of fear, anxiety, and anger.

While Covid-19 ripped through Northern Italy, bringing a nation to its knees, life in Spain carried on – until it was too late. As hospitals reached breaking point, extreme lockdown measures were put into place by Pedro Sánchez’s coalition government.

By that time, indecisiveness, complacency, and a failure to act in terms of travel restrictions as Covid-19 approached with the inevitability of a rising spring tide, leaving the highest risk members of society – the elderly and those in care homes – exposed. Like sitting ducks, they didn’t stand a chance.

The army was deployed to disinfect care homes across the country and found helpless residents dead in their beds. Madrid’s ice rink was converted into a makeshift morgue; home to rows of chilled bodies in wooden boxes lined side by side with numbers for names.

It soon emerged that care homes residents were denied hospital treatment – a generation of Spaniards were abandoned when they needed us most.

A societal straitjacket

A country where life is lived on its streets and in its bars and terraces, Spain suddenly found itself cooped up in small apartments, pisos, which house most of the nation’s urban population. Fifty days without proper exercise took its toll on a famously active nation. Children became anxious and restless, we all gained weight, and disputes between neighbours soared by 60 percent.

Flowers and trees bloomed in empty closed parks and “To rent” signs sprung up like mushrooms on the windows of bars, shops and beauticians as many local businesses folded, unable to pay rent and bills as the stream of income dried up.

We opened door handles with our elbows. We queued, one metre apart, outside supermarkets. With the daily news of rising deaths and spiralling debts, the initial wartime-like adrenaline turned to despair. Patrolling police cars served only to add to the dystopian feel of it all.

Greetings with kisses and hugs were replaced by uneasy moments of battling instincts as Spain quickly went contactless. The only smiles to be seen on the streets were from the discarded Amazon packages piled up alongside apartment block dumpsters.

There was no Semana Santa celebrations, no cheeky puente getaways, or long, dreamy summer holidays, the type you never want to end. Even Christmas looks set to be a “decaffeinated” version.

The holidays and fiestas are the lifeblood of the towns and cities across the country; they are not only huge economic drivers, but they also generate tremendous excitement and passion. Without the noise, people, colours, and rituals, Spain is a sad place.

Fatigue and contradictions

It has been a gruelling slog. Face masks, alcohol hand gels, incessant hand washing, and the fear of physical contact.

We saw every version of “how not to wear a mask” imaginable. Guidelines and restrictions were filled with baffling contradictions. During a global pandemic, with a virus spread principally through air particles, folk were able to waddle along busy streets with a cigarette in one hand and the face mask in the other, puffing to their heart’s content as the rest of us acted responsibly. Betting shops remained open as parks and other green spaces – such vital places for citizen mental and physical health – were locked shut.

As the second wave punished those who initially got it right, the party has kept going in the Spanish capital. Madrid's regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso filled the airwaves and column inches and like her spiritual mentor Esperanza Aguirre, she has thrived in the animosity.

A woman with a placard reading “Ayuso resignation, her incompetence criminalizes our neighborhoods” takes part in a demonstration at the Carabanchel neighborhood in Madrid. Photo: AFP

As Portugal rallied around the flag to combat the virus, across the border Spain couldn’t help itself as its famous divide and flounder politics once again took centre stage. Catalan independence, ETA, the royal family, Franco – all the hits were given another spin out as the nation’s real heroes reached breaking point on the frontline.

The mudslinging continued with the same ferocity of the virus itself, reaching peak levels with the then Partido Popular congressional spokeswoman, Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, calling Deputy PM Pablo Iglesias “the son of a terrorist.

We watched on as residents of the wealthy Salamanca neighbourhood in Madrid took to the streets, because they had to follow the same lockdown measures as everyone else. Those at the other end of the economic ladder also gathered in huge numbers — to queue for meals at the capital’s food banks.

The welfare state

Years of closures and cuts left Spain ill-equipped to face the gravest humanitarian crisis to hit the country since the 1936 Civil War. Doctors, nurses and healthcare staff were asked to battle the devastating virus without proper protection. Many became infected; others were physically and mentally shattered. And then came the second wave.

The Ministry of Education estimated that approximately 10 percent of the 8.2 million students in Spain have been unable to follow classes online. According to El País, in the Catalan and Valencian communities this number is actually closer to 15 percent, while parents in Andalusian cities like Seville, Granada and Jaén claim that the figures are greater still.

While more affluent families will be able to recuperate lost time quicker through extracurricular activities, history has shown us that those left behind from an early age tend to fall through the cracks in later years.

Covid-19 has been a knockout-blow to the now dubbed “double crisis generation,” those who found themselves leaving education to a barren wasteland of unstable and poor-quality employment a decade ago.

They’ve have to accept jobs well below their qualification levels with little to no security. They’ve have to postpone moving out of home or getting married and god forbid if they ever wish to have children! Not the news a country with a rapidly greying population struggling to pay pensions and deal with depopulation wants to hear.

Spain’s labour market needs radical reform. How can any country aspire to create a welfare state with 75 percent of its workforce employed with temporary contracts? The days of “It’ll-be-alright-mañana” economics and an unsustainable dependence on cheap and cheerful tourism are over. Spain needs to get a grip.

Real change demands bold decisions from expert thinkers, not well-heeled headline grabbers.

Hope

With a mounting migrant crisis in the Canary Islands, the Catalan elections in February, and the political circus in Madrid, it’s difficult to see Spain being anything other than a divided nation in 2021. It can, however, become fairer and more equal.

While Pedro Sánchez, Pablo Casado, Santiago Abascal and Pablo Iglesias occupy themselves with stoking the flames of political warfare, Spain’s labour, education, finance and ecological transition ministers – all women – have opted for actions rather than words.

Yolanda Díaz, Labour Minister, has emerged in the eyes of many as Spain’s great hope. Dubbed by El País as the “Agreements Minsiter,” Díaz has shown an abilty to unite both sides of the political spectrum to lead positive change.

She has blasted Mariano Rajoy’s “better to have something than nothing” policies and is leading the drive to creating a more robust and stable labour market. Having already raised the minimum wage to €950 and spearheaded the ERTE program to sustain businesses throughout the pandemic, Díaz is proving that things can be done quickly in Spain with the right people on board.’

The economy is expected to shrink 12 percent this year but the recently approved budget has defied the temptation to go down the austerity route with spending increases in healthcare, education and other welfare services.

Moreover, having been allocated €140 billion from historic EU coronavirus recovery fund, combined with extremely low borrowing costs, Spain will never again have a better opportunity to the reinvent itself and tackle other areas such as gender violence, inhumane working conditions for seasonal workers, outdated administrative processes, and digitalisation.

Will it seize the moment and strike while the iron is hot?

Brendan Boyle is an Irish writer and has lived in Madrid since 2016, covering Spanish current affairs for Jacobin and Tribune magazines. For more of his views and analysis follow him on Twitter 

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