MADRID (AFP) — 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.
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 21 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 Hazel Ward
© Agence France-Presse