Horror in Spain Turns to Anger Against Prime Minister

Every night at 8 p.m., Spaniards head to their balconies and windows to clap for the healthcare workers risking their lives to save others from the coronavirus pandemic. An hour later, there’s a second wave of noise in some neighbourhoods as people come out with pots and pans.

This time it’s not in praise, but in protest at the government’s handling of the deadliest emergency to hit Spain since the Franco dictatorship years.

The public health crisis that’s seen hospitals overwhelmed, medical staff dying on the front line and harrowing stories of the army finding corpses in nursing homes, risks morphing into a political one for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

After a series of missteps, his administration is increasingly being blamed for failing to get a grip on the disease. Both daily new cases and deaths resumed theirupward trajectory on Wednesday, with fatalities reaching14,555, the most in the world per capita. A national lockdown was already extended through April 25.

“This has been appalling from the start,” said Javier Dueñas, 59, a builder who lives in the Retiro neighborhood of Madrid who just joined the protests against the government. “They should pay a price for all of this.”

Just 28% of Spaniards approve of the efforts by their government to deal with the outbreak, compared with 35% three weeks ago, according to a GAD3 poll published Monday by Spanish newspaper ABC.

In contrast, German ChancellorAngela Merkel and Italian Prime MinisterGiuseppe Conte have more than 60% backing from voters in recent surveys. French President Emmanuel Macron’s overall approval ratingjumped to its highest level in nearly two years. 

In extreme, extraordinary situations, “most countries tend to have a ‘rally behind the flag’ moment” that boosts the country’s leader, said Narciso Michavila, chairman of GAD3. But that hasn’t happened in Spain, largely because of the fiery ideological divisions that have dominated its politics since the Civil War in the 1930s, he said.

A month ago, when deaths were already mounting across the Mediterranean in Italy, Sanchez showed support for an International Women’s Day on March 8. Less than a week later, he declared a state of emergency. Now citizens are confined to their homes, and Spain is gripped by Europe’s most-extensive outbreak of Covid-19.  

The way Spain is run hasn’t worked in Sanchez’s favor. Keeping a country with different languages and administrations together has never been easy, and the crisis has exposed a weakness in the Spanish federal system.

When it comes to healthcare and nursing homes, the central government normally has no direct oversight of the 17 regions. But under the state of emergency announced on March 14, Sanchez changed that, placing them all under the control of the health minister. The government then scrambled to run a sprawling system it had no control over for years.

Sanchez has held periodic calls with the regional presidents, though failed to create a solid, united political front, and many regional governments have complained of shortages of medical equipment. The World Health Organization says they’re more acute in Spain than in other countries.

“The WHO told Spain we needed to buy hospital material months ago, and they ignored it, then they allowed the March 8 rally,” said Dueñas, the builder in Madrid. “In nursing homes, the elderly are dying because of ineptitude. They didn’t ask for help from opposition parties early on.”

Indeed, in some of the worst cases residents of nursing homes were left to die alone in their beds because many centers had no protective gear so staff were not showing up for work. Many of the public facilities have been underfunded during years of financial austerity, and are also far more loosely regulated than other health care services.

The situation got so desperate that two weeks ago the Defence Ministry deployed some 7,000 soldiers to help, in Spain’s biggest military peacetime operation. They disinfected over 2,000 facilities across the country. Sometimes, they help move residents because of the staff shortages.

“Suddenly, they see a car from the army emergency unit, and they see that they haven’t been abandoned – it’s a boost,” said an army captain leading a battalion in northern Spain. He declined to be identified by name.

“This is unlike anything I’ve ever faced,” said the captain. “Missions in Iraq, in Afghanistan, you know when they start and when they end. We just have no idea when this finishes, or what they’ll ask us to do next.”

Hospitals from Bilbao to Madrid are likewise overwhelmed. In the capital, two ice rinks have been converted to keep bodies refrigerated until mortuaries can catch up. But it’s the drama unfolding in the nursing homes that has sparked the greatest anger.

Read More: Spanish Doctors Are Forced to Choose Who to Let Die

Disc jockey Juan Jose Paul, 42, a supporter of Sanchez’s Socialist Party, lost his aunt to the virus, and then authorities misplaced the body for almost a day. “The nursing home catastrophe is where the government really fell down because they should have jumped in much earlier,” said Paul. “This could lose them votes.”

The government says its containment measures are having an impact, reducing the daily increase in confirmed cases in percentage terms and the numbers of new entrants to intensive care wards. It points to an aid package for self-employed workers and companies worth as much as a 100 billion euros ($109 billion).

Sanchez barely scraped into office after an election in November. He cobbled togethera coalition with his main rivals to the left, Unidas Podemos, just three months ago and is relying on support from a mixed-bag of parties, including a group of Catalan separatists.

It was Spain’s fourth vote in as many years, and the third time Sanchez was named prime minister since he took power from conservative Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy, who was hit by a political funding scandal and ousted in a no-confidence vote in June 2018.

In the weeks prior to declaring a state of emergency on March 14, the government was focused mainly on finding a way to appease demands by Catalan separatists and garner support for a budget in the splintered parliament. The coalition that governs Catalonia, which includes his erstwhile allies, is now openly critical of the prime minister along with the main opposition.

QuicktakeHow Catalonia Remains a Thorn in Spanish Politics

People’s Party leader Pablo Casado told Telecinco TV that Sánchez’s handling of the outbreak is “an explosive cocktail of arrogance, incompetence and lies.” The far-right Vox, the third-largest party in parliament, is calling for Sanchez to resign and his administration to be replaced by government of national unity.

El Pais newspaper, traditionally supportive of socialist governments, published a harsh op-ed by its former editor-in-chief this week. Other public figures have also expressed their discontentment.

“I hope that measures will be taken against the government of @sanchezcastejon and @PabloIglesias when all this is over,” former Atletico Madrid soccer player Álvaro Domínguez lamented in a tweet this month. “You only show incompetence day after day.”

— With assistance by Charles Penty, Thomas Gualtieri, Charlie Devereux, and Ainhoa Goyeneche

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