The COVID-19 pandemic provides a measure of our worth as individuals and it is also a stress test for Spain’s political system, a democracy whose welfare state is under great strain as a result of the economic downturn and unresolved territorial issues which complicate the management of an unprecedented situation further at a time when institutional distrust between the Catalan government and its Spanish counterpart is at an all-time high.
On a personal level, whenever we find ourselves under great pressure we are offered a chance to show who we are as individuals. In some cases, the gravity of our character flaws —a pre-existing condition that predates the arrival of the virus— becomes blatantly obvious and we witness how solidarity, goodwill and generosity —and the lack thereof— are equally pervasive.
Likewise, in the political arena we can see that the authorities in the more reliable countries have managed to persuade the general public to heed the advice of experts and their political leaders. In Spain, where people still shun politics and do not stand behind their leaders, policies are not easily implemented. The discredit of politics is a malaise that might stem from the Franco era and political disenfranchisement, but it is fuelled by corruption and the mismanagement of crisis situations. An example of the latter is the fact that it has taken PM Pedro Sánchez one and a half days to outline the steps he will take after the announcement that he would be declaring a state of emergency, a decision that might bring about costly consequences and lead to troops being deployed in the streets.
However, the dangerous pre-existing condition in Spain’s case is the country’s unresolved territorial issues. Obviously, the spread of the virus will not be stopped by national borders and total cooperation in every instance will be required in Spain, Europe and across the world. Needless to say, an exceptional situation such as this calls for measures that will match the magnitude of the challenge, as well as full cooperation between the political and scientific institutions. The main goal is to become more efficient at implementing decisions and subsidiary decision-making tends to yield better results. Suspending regional powers does not guarantee better crisis management, whereas coordination and cooperation across borders do.
The pandemic demands better coordination and better management indeed, but it has also tarnished the image of Catalan politics following president Torra’s announcement on Friday evening that all of Catalonia would be put on lockdown, something he has not followed through on. As a matter of fact, the Catalan government has no authority to order a lockdown and can neither take over border control duties nor shut down airports, ports and railway stations.
On this point, the COVID-19 crisis is a reality-check for Catalonia and the Basque Country, two nations that won’t allow their home rule to be snatched from them. While other Spanish regions would quite naturally —even enthusiastically— hand over their powers to Madrid, this is a taboo subject for those that aspire to greater devolved powers, especially for Catalonia in the post-independence bid scenario.
It is a poor start for the Spanish authorities, who initially dragged their feet and then announced a highly exceptional state of emergency, only to wait a day and a half before outlining the extraordinary measures that will impact the working and private lives of everyone in Spain for two weeks. It is not easy to strike a balance between protecting the public from such a contagious virus and avoiding an economic downfall. The coming weeks will be marked by collective anxiety.
The state of emergency decreed by the Spanish authorities is a political steamroller. Who will have the gall to claim that Spain is the most de-centralised country in Europe when regional governments are stripped of their powers in a matter of hours and without prior consultation? It is a power wake-up call delivered by a Spanish government that has no plans to act like you would expect in a quasi-federal country. The decision will be imposed and, prompted by the coronavirus crisis, Spain will shift from a system of devolved regional powers (which only the Senate could suspend temporarily) to a re-centralised model.
The situation is grave and there will be ample time to gauge the results of such a traumatic decision. Meanwhile, we must insist on better coordination and management, for everyone’s sake, in order to overcome this drama.
When the proverbial hits the fan, it is essential to have access to quality reporting and there is no room for anything other than the real deal. That’s why, now more than ever, our editorial team will keep working to report on the situation of our health service, the fragility of some in our society, the tremendous vocational effort made by healthcare professionals, and the political and economic effects of this crisis. The connection of true digital reporting with our time will allow us to stick to our goal of providing unbiased reporting that is socially engaged, be in print form or online. Once again, ARA is working for you and we are grateful for the support of our readers and subscribers.