After enduring one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, Spain is beginning to ease its coronavirus restrictions — but the efforts have not come without controversy.
Since last week, millions of people have been allowed to visit friends and family, and sit outside at bars and cafes, in parts of the country where the epidemic is sufficiently under control.
A major exception, however, has been the Madrid region, the part of Spain hardest-hit by the coronavirus, and where the national government has denied repeated requests from local officials to begin easing the lockdown restrictions.
In response, after first banging pots and pans each night from their balconies, hundreds of protesters have taken to the streets in Madrid’s wealthy Salamanca neighborhood over the past week.
Waving Spanish flags and crying “Viva España!” some protesters have denounced Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s leftist government as communists who are ruining the country.
“I am against all the measures which this government has used to manage the coronavirus,” Jose Flores, a banker, told Reuters.
“After coronavirus, the worst virus is going to be the virus of Pedro and Pablo, who are going to ruin 47 million Spaniards,” another protester, who gave his name only as Carlos, said, referring to Sanchez and his deputy, far-left politician Pablo Iglesias.
“We are in a dictatorial system, and I know what I’m talking about,” Magdalena, a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood, told El Pais. “They are applying a decree that bans our freedom.”
In a local TV interview that has gone viral on social media, a masked woman in a fur coat expressed her fury at the continued lockdown restrictions.
“During Franco’s time, they never locked me up at home,” the woman said, per HuffPost Spain. “In all my 70 years, they never made me stay at home shut away, they never forbid me from speaking or going for a walk.”
Another video that has been widely shared online showed a protester shouting through a megaphone as he is chauffeured through the streets in a black convertible.
Elsewhere in Madrid, people have been suffering the economic effects of the lockdown. More than 100,000 people in the Spanish capital have been turning to food banks and local aid organizations for help, according to Euro News.
At the peak of the outbreak, Spain was losing hundreds of citizens a day to COVID-19 as stretched hospitals and care homes struggled to treat patients. But the overnight death toll reported on Monday was 59, the lowest in two months, bringing the known total to 27,709.
On Saturday, Sánchez announced that he would seek to extend the country’s state of emergency, which was implemented on March 14, for a fifth and final time, until the end of June.
But the conservative People’s Party and far-right Vox party strongly oppose a further extension.
“Madrid is the economic heart of Spain, since it represents 20% of gross domestic product; it is also the doorway to foreign investment in the country,” Manuel Giménez Rasero, Madrid’s economic minister, told the Financial Times.
“That is why it is so urgent for the region and the rest of the country for it to be allowed to participate in the loosening of the lockdown.”
Poverty is scarce in Salamanca, however, an upscale district full of luxury retailers like Chanel, Armani, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari. Real estate listings in the area include a 9,000 square-foot apartment priced at $16.4 million, and a penthouse offered for $8.7 million.
It is also a heavily right-wing neighborhood. In last year’s general election, 61% of the votes in Salamanca went to the People’s Party and Vox party.
Local government officials have been encouraging the protests.
“As long as [safety] conditions are maintained, everyone is free to voice their opinion,” Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida, a member of the People’s Party, said this week.
“I hope people will go out on the street,” said Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional premier, who is also a member of the People’s Party.
Last week, Ayuso accused the national government of “taking advantage of the biggest crisis in Spain’s recent history to impose a single, dictatorial authority.”
For its part, Spain’s ruling Socialist party has attacked Madrid’s regional government for its “inefficient and irresponsible administration in the face of the Covid crisis,” according to the Financial Times.
Yolanda Fuentes, Madrid’s top public health official, resigned on May 7, after reportedly clashing with the regional government over the desire of local officials to lift lockdown restrictions.
Many health workers have condemned the protests in Madrid, pointing out that photos shared on social media show crowds of people marching together without obeying social distancing measures.
“This act shows utter disrespect for the thousands of dead, for my colleagues who are giving their lives (literally) in medical centers, hospitals and retirement homes,” José Ramón Fernández, a pediatrician in a Cartagena hospital, wrote on Twitter, per HuffPost Spain.
“It is deeply unpatriotic, despite the fact they think patriotism is taking the flag for a walk,” he said, adding: “There is no scientific evidence at the moment that yelling ‘Viva España’ protects you from coronavirus infection.”
Fernández explained in another message that he left his home for the first time on Thursday to go for a walk with his daughter.
“In two months, it’s the first time I’ve left my house other than to go to work at the hospital. I’m afraid of what could happen in this region in a couple of months if we aren’t careful,” he said.
With reporting from HuffPost Spain and Reuters.
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