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The other pandemic

Spanish politics is as destructive as the coronavirus. There will one day be a vaccine against the latter, but there seems to be no remedy for the former If we don’t do something, these people will be the ruin of us all

Ilustración trib Muñoz Molina 27-09-20
Antonio Muñoz Molina

At every turn, Spanish politics are becoming more toxic than the virus that’s caused a pandemic. Day after day, ever since the beginning of this bleak September, the stream of news about the rise in contagion and deaths has been aggravated by the deplorable spectacle of political discord, of inefficiency working hand in hand with partisanship, of a frivolous irresponsibility that is slowly mutating into criminal negligence.

Spanish politics are as destructive as the coronavirus itself. A vaccine against the virus will be found, and palliative care will improve; but there seems to be no remedy against the Spanish poison of finger-in-the-eye politics. Scientists tell us that our country has greater vulnerabilities than others. Epidemiologists compare figures that place Spain at the top of the European list in terms of coronavirus cases, deaths, infected healthcare workers. International economic institutions warn that our recession is going to be deeper than in any other European Union country. Our economy had not contracted this much since the Civil War (1936-1939). An entire generation’s future is on hold because nobody knows whether schools will remain open.

What we needed was so obvious that it seemed impossible that sweeping agreements would not be reached to achieve it

But Spain’s political class, its parties, and the media organizations that cover their battles and their bluster, seem trapped inside some kind of bubble where the only attitude on display is one of aggressive swagger, combined with the impulse to hurt and the use of a foul vocabulary that chiefly serves to poison the collective atmosphere even further, all in order to avoid accountability and find scapegoats, enemies to blame for all the mistakes that have been made.

It’s the virus that kills, but it would kill a whole lot less if, for many years now, the administrative machinery of government had not been weakened by incompetence, corruption and political cronyism, effectively pushing out a lot of capable people and dragging those who remained into a state of despondency, depriving them of necessary resources that are instead squandered on crafty privatizations or on sumptuous salaries for parasites.

Good governance and social justice require, first of all, an honest and efficient system of administration. The best intentions will sink into irrelevance or absurdity if there are no efficient, flexible structures in place and no capable civil service employees to keep them going. An achievement as vital as the minimum basic income can become mired in the bog of an overstretched public administration. Spain is a country of sonorous speeches and official hotlines where nobody ever picks up; of innumerable advisors and health centers short on medical and cleaning equipment; of political leaders who promise a paradise of independence or equality, while physicians are forced to sign one-week and even one-day contracts in order to make a living.

The Madrid region has the highest contagion rate in the world, yet its pompous deputy premier has just inaugurated a hand sanitizer dispenser at a subway station. A group of 150 top scientists have published a letter in The Lancet asking Spain’s central and regional governments to conduct a comprehensive, rigorous, independent evaluation of the country’s management of the pandemic. The letter was published in early August, when the contagion curve was already rising: not one single institution issued a response; only in mid-September, after a second letter came out in The Lancet in more alarmed tones, did the health minister reach out to the scientists to propose a meeting in October. Clearly, there is no rush.

Good governance and social justice require, first of all, an honest and efficient system of administration

Doctors, nurses, cleaners, food delivery workers, supermarket employees, police officers, members of the military, caregivers at senior residences, teachers, pharmacists; the scope and human quality of the individuals who put their lives on the line performing essential work during the darkest days of confinement give us faith in the strength of our country, and it is all the more meritorious because it persists despite a destructive and sterile political climate, despite a political class that no doubt includes some honest and capable individuals, but which taken as a whole, in light of everyday reality, has become an obstacle not just for civilized coexistence, but for the country’s sustainability, for the survival of its institutions and the rules of democracy.

It’s not just that every single day they prove themselves to be incompetent or irresponsible in the way they manage the problems affecting us: it’s that they actively work to make them worse, preventing any form of constructive agreement, and very frequently creating new problems that only exist because they made them up in order to throw fuel on the flames of daily political bickering. They are so caught up in their own interests that they lack the ability to show generosity or eloquence towards the citizens that they represent and who provide their bread and butter. They speak in public but they are only addressing their own people. They are capable of sabotaging plans that would benefit a majority, if doing so causes damage to their own adversary. Instead of engaging in public debate, in the exchange of ideas, in the search for better practices, they prefer the poisonous circus of social media, which has become the toy and the showcase that they all subscribe to.

Nobody remembers this now, but we had a repeat election a year ago because the parties that received the most votes in the previous April election were incapable of reaching a governing deal, which forced us into a protracted caretaker period that we were only beginning to timidly emerge from when the pandemic hit, bringing us face to face with all the weaknesses that have been holding us back for years due to the shiftlessness and incompetence of our political class.

They are capable of sabotaging plans that would benefit a majority, if doing so causes damage to their own adversary

It seemed then, in early March, that the sheer weight of reality would force political leaders and parties to adopt a modicum of good sense, to become imbued with a sense of responsibility equal to that shown by citizens who, from one day to the next, changed their habits and observed the lockdown; or even equal to that shown by healthcare workers and civil service employees who displayed quiet heroism for months, often in wretched working conditions. What we needed was so obvious that it seemed impossible that sweeping agreements would not be reached to achieve it.

But I remember that during the darkest days, the Spanish right was as scary as the coronavirus in its sheer destructive viciousness, and that it formed a perfect tandem with that other fundamentalist right that some people believe to be left wing just because it defines itself as anti-Spanish: right now, the people whom the Catalan separatists most closely resemble, in terms of their lack of solidarity and their desire to quarrel and to make the most of a disastrous situation, are the Spanish patriots who are mismanaging the Madrid region. In both cases, they are more interested in the damage they might cause to the central government than in the damage to everyone else. And within the central government, hampered by internal disagreement and lack of direction, loudmouths and irresponsible individuals are thwarting the efforts of those who actually know what they’re doing.

I honestly don’t know what can be done by regular citizens like ourselves, those who are not filled with hate, those who would like to see political life guided by the same principles of pragmatism and goodwill that guide nearly everybody in everyday life. We put on our face masks, keep our social distance, wash our hands, and do our jobs as best we can. If we don’t do something, these people will be the ruin of us all.

Antonio Muñoz Molina is a writer.

English version by Susana Urra.

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