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July 29, 2020


SPAIN: The politics of new outbreaks

BY Antonio Barroso

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The rising number of Covid-19 infections in recent days is highlighting the regional authorities’ challenges in tackling new outbreaks. However, the central government is unlikely to reimpose a nationwide lockdown anytime soon, given the existing economic pressures. Moreover, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has a political incentive to let the regions handle the pandemic at this stage. Meanwhile, VOX’s recently announced no-confidence motion will only serve to strengthen the standing of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE)-Unidas Podemos coalition government.

As previously explained, regional governments recovered on 21 June their competences to manage the pandemic after the nationwide state of emergency ended. Since then, regions such as Catalonia have struggled to contain the spread of new infections, which has forced them to implement localized lockdowns. This, in turn, has exposed some of their capacity limitations. For instance, it has recently been revealed that Spain has less than half of the human contact tracers needed to deal with new outbreaks effectively. Catalonia and Madrid – two of the worst-affected regions – had at the beginning of July broadly one tracer for every 30,000 inhabitants, well below the ratio that is considered adequate to contain the virus. Moreover, the central government has still not approved the deployment of its contact-tracing app.

Despite the increasing concerns about a resurgence of cases, Prime Minister Sanchez is unlikely to reimpose a national lockdown anytime soon. From an economic standpoint, the government wants to avoid any decision that would further hurt those sectors battered by the pandemic, such as tourism. The reaction to the British government’s decision to impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone who arrives from Spain is a case in point, with Sanchez declaring that some of Spain’s main tourism destinations have average infection rates below the UK’s.

The government also has a political incentive not to interfere with the regions’ management of the pandemic. Some regions such as Catalonia (governed by the secessionists) and Madrid (ruled by the opposition People’s Party) were among those most critical of Sanchez’s centralization of decision-making during the lockdown. The challenges these regional governments are facing now allows the focus of the criticisms to shift to them. In turn, this also forces them to step up their capacity to deal with outbreaks. For instance, Catalonia has announced in recent days the hiring of 500 additional human contact tracers and a significant increase in PCR testing.

In sum, the central government is likely to maintain an incremental approach in the coming days, possibly lending occasional support to the regions. For instance, the army is reportedly training contact tracing personnel, which could be supplied to regions in specific cases.

Right-wing games

Meanwhile, far-right party VOX (52 MPs in the 350-seat lower chamber) announced on 29 July that it would file a no-confidence motion in September against the government. Rather than to create troubles for Sanchez, the decision is designed to put pressure on the center-right PP by portraying it as “soft” if it does not support the motion. The PP has already declared that it will not back it, further diminishing the already minimal chances that the initiative will succeed. VOX’s move will only further strengthen the ruling coalition’s standing, as the vote in parliament will make it evident that there is no alternative to the current government.

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