Spain recorded 514 deaths from COVID-19 on March 24 — its highest daily death toll to date — bringing the country’s death toll to 2696. Only Italy has been harder hit by the deadly pandemic in Europe
With the country in lock down, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to GL European correspondent in Barcelona, Dick Nichols, about the grim reality on the ground and how, among the sorrow, examples of people’s solidarity are shining through.
Could you give us a sense of what the situation and discussion is like there?
The big discussion here, much like in Italy, is about the intensity of the lockdown.
All non-essential activities have shut down, except those that have permission to continue operating. There is still a grey area though, because there is a lot of economic activity going on, at the same time as there are factories that have closed down.
In Lombardy, Italy, they have locked down absolutely everything except absolutely essential stuff. Meanwhile, here, just across from where I live, they are building a new school and they were still working on Friday. Another issue is public transport which is still running.
The majority sentiment among experts, epidemiologists and doctors is that the lockdown has to be more vigorous. The basic setting has to be everything stops unless it is absolutely necessary it not stop — for example, emergency services, support for the elderly, food distribution to those who cannot get it.
This is the basis on which the Catalan government is insisting the Spanish government introduce a complete lockdown.
There is a meeting of all premiers with the Prime Minister this week, where they will discuss what to do next. That may be where the next step is taken.
The central government can't be seen to be responding to pressure from Catalonia. That is just not possible: there are matters of life and death, but the unity of the Spanish state takes precedence above all else.
What is the general sentiment towards the lock down?
The basic sentiment, from talking to people, is that we just have to cop it; that's just the way it is and we have got to do the right thing. People accept that they have to stay at home. A whole new world has developed online as social life goes on via the internet.
Some people are trying to get around this: the rich certainly tried to get around it last week when they jetted off to their second homes. Same with small businesses, which are hurting very badly. People who are desperate for income will try to get around it, but they can't.
There has been a 90% reduction in electricity use and a 90% reduction in key markers of economic activity across a whole series of industries. All this is a sign of how much people accept these measures.
What is not accepted is the military rhetoric that has accompanied it; that this is a war against an unseen enemy, the coronavirus — especially in Catalonia. They are using the situation — like all political currents will use it, but especially in the Spanish state — to inculcate Spanish patriotism.
That goes down like a lead balloon in Catalonia, given the role of the Civil Guard and the Spanish national police during the 2017 independence referendum.
There have been reports the government has nationalised hospitals to deal with the situation. What can you tell us about this?
Private hospitals are not popular here. The rich use private hospitals, but mass sentiment towards private hospitals is “these bastards are making money out of people's health”. There has always been strong support for nationalising the private health system.
In reality, though, no nationalisation has taken place. They have just said to the private health system “you will take orders from us, you are now under our control”. Essentially, the main public hospitals have incorporated private hospitals and their resources into their overall plans.
We will have to see what happens afterwards, because many feel that we should bring the private hospitals in to help but not pay them. This reopens the debate on the relationship between public and private healthcare.
Will the dynamic be towards getting rid of private healthcare, maintaining a permanent living relationship, or going back to what it was like before?
Because of the generalised support that exists for public health, spending will have to jump back to levels before the 2008 economic crisis. Even conservative governments will have to do that.
What kind of economic measures has the government enacted?
Emergency economic measures have been taken regarding income support for people who have lost jobs. But whole sections of the workforce are not going to get protection from what the government is saying will be the biggest economic package since World War II.
Income support will be provided through the social security system, but this is a social safety net with big holes in it for the poorest, the most vulnerable people, as well as the self-employed and casualised workers, particularly in tourism and hotel cleaning, where the workforce is mostly women and mostly migrants.
Unless the Spanish state fixes it fast, up to 3 million people will fall through the gaps.
Similarly, all mortgage payments have been suspended, which is good, but the big problem is that a majority of people pay rent and nothing has changed there. The Platform for Mortgage Victims has said there should be a moratorium on rent, while this crisis goes on.
People are also asking what is going to be done once coronavirus is in prisons. The response to date has been that there will be lockdowns. Prison guards are saying they don't have enough equipment, so there's potential there for a very bad situation.
Another issue is the refugees locked in internment centres. Many are saying they should be released because there are places they can go. There is quite a strong sentiment that “we're all in this together”, which leads many to ask: “Well, what about those locked up in detention centres?”
In the immediate term, public spending will be focused on emergency measures. But the case has to be made that such investment is directed towards transiting to a sustainable green economy, through investment in green technology, sustainable energy, transport, conversion of agriculture from industrial agriculture to locally-based organic agriculture, among other things.
Can you give us a sense of how unions and communities are organising or expressing solidarity in this time of crisis?
One important example is that every night, at 8pm, across Catalonia and across the Spanish state, people go out on their balconies and applaud health workers. It's not just a little token thing, the noise is deafening.
Unions are, of course, focused on their members that are going to be stood down and correctly so, but I don't get the sense unions are doing much in terms of broader solidarity.
Here, much of the solidarity is organised through neighbourhood assemblies and committees, which are very strong in Spain, but particularly strong in Catalonia, where people are volunteering and setting up networks to help the sick, the elderly and the disabled in their area.
My local neighbourhood committee has a map of all the people who need the most help and a list of volunteers. The aim is to make sure that no one is left alone, so they ring up, visit and speak to people over the intercom to make sure they are ok.
You also get expressions of solidarity in local supermarkets, where workers have put up advertisements asking people to make sure that people in their building are all ok, and explaining that they can deliver food to those in need.
The other noticeable thing has been the response to the calls for retired medical personnel, doctors, nurses and final-year medical students to volunteer. There was a big response to that.
What is the sense among people about what the future holds?
Among some people there is a sentiment that this will all be over in a month and we will just go back to normal again. But, among broad layers of people there is sentiment that we had this coming, because society can't go on living like this.
There will be a fight between those who want everything to just go back to normal and those who believe things cannot remain the same. In this sense, I think we are at a turning point in politics for the whole planet.