Spain is first western European country to pass 1m Covid cases

Sam Jones in Madrid
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Raquel Manzanares/EPA</span>
Photograph: Raquel Manzanares/EPA

Six weeks after becoming the first western European country to record 500,000 coronavirus cases, Spain has become the first to record a million, registering a total of 1,005,295 infections by Wednesday evening.

It has also recorded 575 deaths over the past week, bringing the official number of Covid deaths to 34,366.

The unwelcome landmark comes as the Spanish government mulls a curfew and as political bickering and grandstanding threaten to jeopardise the country’s efforts to tame the second wave of the virus.

The government of the Madrid region, which accounts for almost a third of all Spain’s cases, has been locked in a quarrel with the central government over how to deal with the rise.

Speaking on Wednesday morning, the regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, promised “surgical measures to bring together the economy and health”, adding: “For us, the most important thing is that the economy doesn’t suffer any more.”

Díaz Ayuso’s comments came three days after she unveiled a new plaque dedicated to the memory “of the victims of Covid-19 and especially those who died alone”.

It now hangs on the facade of the regional government’s headquarters in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square, alongside two other memorials to calamitous events in the history of the city: the brutally suppressed rebellion against Napoleon’s troops in 1808, and the 2004 train bombings that killed 193 people.

Admirable though the sentiment and the newest plaque are, they feel remarkably premature. The dying is not done and the second wave of the virus rages on.

Explanations for what the Lancet has politely termed Spain’s “suboptimal response” are not hard to find. As the journal points out, the country’s health services were badly weakened by the austerity that followed the 2008 economic crash and remain “understaffed, under-resourced and under strain”.

The strict lockdown that helped flatten the first wave of the virus was abandoned too soon amid dire economic warnings and a rush to return to a summer of normality, and test-and-trace systems – especially in Madrid – have shown themselves to be woefully inadequate.

Three masked members of Madrid Without Future walk to hand in a request to support the restaurant and bar sector.
Three masked members of Madrid Without Future walk to hand in a request to support the restaurant and bar sector. Photograph: Rodrigo Jimenez/EPA

Now, the effects of Covid-19 are apparent in the tired, frustrated and angry words of the medical staff who had hoped for a longer reprieve, in the presence of more gold buyers than tourists under the Puerta del Sol’s famous Tío Pepe sign and, most tellingly and troublingly of all, in the cheap, nasty and divisive behaviour that has further soured Spain’s already splenetic politics.

Back in the spring, when most Spaniards stood on their balconies or doorsteps to applaud the nation’s healthworkers, its politicians were already busy savaging each other in congress. As the pandemic stretches on and is being used for ever more partisan ends, Spain is becoming trapped in the kind of political hall of mirrors that is depressingly familiar to voters in the UK, the US and Brazil.

Despite criticising what it sees as the myriad failings of the government, the Spanish right’s own priorities are becoming increasingly distorted. Party loyalty comes first, followed by the furtherance of the culture wars, and then by economic considerations. All too often, people’s lives and health come a very distant fourth.

If, as Goya noted, “the sleep of reason produces monsters”, it also throws up its share of opportunists.

On the same day that Spain passed the million mark, Spain’s congress began debating a motion of no-confidence brought against the Socialist-led coalition government by the far-right Vox party.

But for all Vox’s apocalyptic attacks on the “social-communist” government and the Catalan and Basque separatist parties that helped it into office, the measure is intended not so much to topple the government of Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, as to embarrass and outflank Vox’s conservative rivals in the People’s party (PP).

Parliamentary arithmetic means the motion will almost certainly fail, but it will have wounded the PP, which issued a sneering and awkward dismissal of Vox’s strategy, saying: “The PP is a serious party and can’t waste even a minute on strategies doomed to failure.”

Isabel D&#xed;az Ayuso holds a press conference after a regional government meeting in Madrid
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional president, challenged the lockdown imposed by the national government. Photograph: Fernando Villar/EPA

The PP’s credentials as a serious party have been put to the test during the crisis, and nowhere more so than in Madrid. Díaz Ayuso may only be a regional president, but she has eclipsed the PP leader, Pablo Casado, and emerged as perhaps the central government’s most vocal critic.

However, her attacks on the government’s handling of the health emergency have often involved some unusual logic. Explaining her opposition to an extension of the nationwide lockdown back in May, she argued: “People get run over every day but that doesn’t mean we ban cars.”

When the continuing surge in new cases around Madrid led the Sánchez government to use a state of emergency to impose a limited lockdown on parts of the region, Díaz Ayuso protested, bringing a legal challenge. She has also questioned the epidemiological wisdom of closing bars and restaurants, even as other regions do so voluntarily.

Her approach does not appear to be shared by all her colleagues. In May, her decision to push for lockdown restrictions to be relaxed early led to the resignation of the region’s public health chief and, this week, the departures of Madrid’s head of primary care and its hospital boss.

Her behaviour has also pushed Spain’s normally calm and polite health minister, Salvador Illa, to use some uncharacteristically blunt language as he announced the state of emergency.

“Politics is about serving people and stopping the virus,” Illa said.

If the last few months are anything to go by, his view could be a minority one. Spain’s continuing drift into dangerous political waters is doing nothing for its people, its pandemic response, nor its image abroad.

Not far from the new plaque in the Puerta del Sol, a Spanish Red Cross blood donation truck sits under a grey October sky, a reminder that while the dead deserve to be remembered, the living are also in need of a little help right now.