Political polarisation hampers Spain’s pandemic response

The candidate issued a heartfelt plea. “Please stop using this for political ends,” Edmundo Bal said, as he denounced left and right alike for sowing “chaos and confusion” over Spain’s coronavirus strategy.

Bal has political motivations of his own — his centrist Ciudadanos party is facing meltdown in a high-profile election in Madrid. But his charge that politicisation is undermining Spain’s health policy — that politics is contaminating what should be a matter of science — is a powerful one.

Madrid’s regional vote on May 4 — an electoral battle overshadowing all other political life in Spain — has heightened polarisation at an unfortunate time, just as the country confronts an incipient fourth coronavirus wave in which the more infectious B.1.1.7 strain first discovered in Britain is dominant.

In the past few days, Spain’s Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has suggested the conservative-run region is under-reporting infections, pointing to its high levels of hospitalisations and cases in intensive care.

In turn, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who is seeking re-election as the head of Madrid’s regional government, has labelled the prime minister a constant liar with an unhealthy obsession with Madrid, accusing his government of a “pathetic and disgusting attempt to spread fear due to the elections”.

For months now, Díaz Ayuso has accused Sánchez of imposing job-killing coronavirus restrictions; for his part, Sánchez has depicted Madrid’s response as excessively lax.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso is seeking re-election as the head of Madrid’s regional government © Emilio Naranjo/EPA

Against this backdrop, the prime minister has decided not to embark on a bruising political fight to renew the national emergency rules that underpin Spain’s pandemic policy — which provide legal backing for curfews and mobility restrictions. Perhaps his reluctance is unsurprising. When his government prolonged emergency measures during the pandemic’s first wave a year ago, it was at the cost of considerable political capital and with ever-diminishing parliamentary majorities.

So after May 9, each of the country’s 17 regions will instead have to base its curbs on the normal legal order — a state of affairs that led to confusion and legal challenges before the current emergency rules were introduced.

The Madrid region and the national government are also bitterly at odds over Spain’s decision last week to ban the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for people under 60 — until late March the country had forbidden the jab for those over 55. 

On both occasions, Spain’s change in rules — by a committee made up of Carolina Darias, health minister, and her regional counterparts — went beyond the position of the European Medicines Agency. The EU’s pharmaceuticals regulator did not alter its medical guidance on the AstraZeneca vaccine even as it noted “very rare” blood clots in people who had taken the jab. Antonio Zapatero, Díaz Ayuso’s point man on coronavirus strategy, puts the risk of fatal clots at just 0.002 per cent.

Opinions may differ as to whether politicisation resides in Spain’s sudden rule-switch, its denunciation by the leading candidate in a high stakes race, or a combination of both. Other EU countries have also increased restrictions on the AstraZeneca vaccine. The jab may become much less important as rival products come on line over the next three months — although Johnson & Johnson is now delaying the rollout of its own vaccine in Europe following incidents of blood clots.

Still, vaccinating as many people as possible by summer is particularly important for Spain. After the economy contracted more than any other industrialised country last year, it can little afford the loss of another tourist season. The government’s recently announced target of getting 70 per cent of Spaniards inoculated by the end of August may already be too late. Each additional complication risks further delay. 

Rosa Urbanos, an economist specialising in health policy at Madrid’s Complutense university, criticises Spain’s AstraZeneca decision for not being evidence-based — but says ideology is not to blame. Instead, she said: “In a hyperpolarised environment, politicians are averse to taking decisions that have a political cost, even when the risk is very slight — they are waiting to knife each other over the next mistake.”

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