I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned stories pondering just exactly why Spain has been, in effect, the worst-hit country during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re generally well written and informative, like this one, albeit there are exceptions.
For reasons of space, these stories rarely can discuss the political underpinnings of the crisis, so there I go. Because politics is the number one issue here.
Regardless of the final number of deaths — Italy is number one and Iran may well be fudging the numbers — the key question is how Spain, having a two-month advance warning from China and at least a two-week warning from Italy, managed to be so extremely useless in containing the virus.
The explanation really is simple: Spain had a general election in December, from which the world’s most unstable governing coalition came out . It includes Spain’s Labor Party, plus the neo-Progressive Venezuela lovers of Podemos, but depends on the parliament votes of small separatist parties that are not part of the coalition, specifically ERC, Catalonia’s leading party over the last decade, and Bildu, the former political wing of terror group ETA.
The resulting cabinet is a true Frankenstein of power, with the most striking bits and pieces, including the domestic partner of Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, a former supermarket employee who is now Minister for Equality, and a Philosophy PhD who serves as Minister for Health (he’s still in his post: nobody has resigned from any position since the start of the crisis). Iglesias himself, a man who had held no other job than middling college professor, is deputy Prime Minister.
If you consider this, it’s no wonder that, in January, when some people started to warn that coronavirus could be a really serious problem if not correctly addressed, Spain’s government had no incentive at all to listen. There were two, and only two, political courses of action for every country at the time:
A-Announce that the problem is dire and significant and tough measures must be taken, with an effect on the economy; and then take as many measures as you dare.
B-Announce that the problem is minor and we’re monitoring it and keeping an eye on it, and setting up committees to study it.
Spain’s government had every reason to take option B. With no parliament support to pass any legislation without concessions to the separatists, plan A would be a very harsh political pill for them to swallow right after agreeing to support the Left coalition, as it involves a degree of central control from Madrid regarding exactly which tough measures should be taken (closing ports, custom regime changes, etc).
In addition, every ideological fibre in the cabinet’s collective body told them that option A was tantamount to Fascism. At the time, the only mainstream European leader advocating border controls to stop the virus was Italy’s right-winger Matteo Salvini. The fact that Russia, the European Union’s biggest ideological foe, then closed the border with China really settled the matter.
This decision set Madrid on a course for disaster. As the official policy was NO WORRIES, it was hard to take any step against official policy. Some people said you should buy masks, and the government responded: no masks are needed (because saying otherwise would have been contradictory with the official policy); some people said you should avoid big concentrations of people, stop football fans from traveling to Italy with a massive outbreak ongoing there, and the government said: a million times no.
Lie after lie after lie became necessary to sustain official policy, because that’s the way modern politics work: you construct a narrative and defend that narrative to the death, because once that narrative collapses then the opposition has unlimited ammo to attack you with. Many in the Spanish Right are still (half-heartedly) clinging to the notion that Europe’s largest Islamist attack in history (this one) was a false flag, because that’s the narrative they got stuck with.
For the leftist government in Madrid, the only straw left to grasp was the hope that the virus would go away soon as the weather warmed because, by mid February, it was clear that there were only two courses of action left:
A-Stay the political course, save the economy, make allies happy, mock rightists (very few of them) and crazies (me) who call for a border closure, enjoy the fruits of patronage and political power, and focus on the successful MeToo and anti-racist campaigns that take up 95% of Progressive bandwidth these days.
B-Concede that we’re on the brink of causing the country’s worst health crisis in a century because we like power so much and our ideological framework is less flexible than an airplane carrier made of concrete. Which is no problem, except that you’re pretty much giving up winning any election — including all-important local and regional elections; remember that Spain is highly decentralized — for the next four years.
Nobody would take B, so they took A and prayed to the Progressive elves, or whoever we Atheists pray to when we really need a miracle. No miracle came. If this doesn’t illustrate the power of ideology, I don’t know what does.
Over 4,000 dead later, all the government can do is use its huge propaganda system to try and convince people that they’re not to blame. Knowing the way propaganda works in Spain, there’s a fair chance that they will succeed if the crisis peters out soonish.