When rebellion breaks out in the usually well-behaved audience of Madrid’s Royal Opera House, it is proof that the city’s authorities have lost control.
A performance of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera had to be suspended on Sunday amid complaints that those seated in the gods had been piled atop one another, ignoring social distancing. It was further evidence that in Madrid we have passed from pandemic, through post-pandemic to the next ghastly phase — the return of the coronavirus.
Just as Madrid led Europe’s cities to the crest of the spring Covid-19 wave, lagging only behind Milan, so we are now ploughing a second wave furrow for others to follow. In fact, given that they were two of Europe’s worst performers last time, Madrid’s new Covid outbreak may prove a dry run for London.
“Hard weeks lie ahead,” prime minister Pedro Sánchez warned madrileños on Monday, as a sixth of the wider Madrid region was locked down again. In an extraordinary clash this morning, Madrid's regional government extended lockdown to eight more barrios, while Spain's health ministry said the entire city ought to be shut down.
In my apartment block near the Retiro Park, we did not need reminding. The doorman, Vicente, has spent the last fortnight shut inside his basement flat. His wife, Encarni, returned from hospital on Wednesday, exhausted but alive, having recovered from Covid. And ours is one of the least affected barrios.
By Tuesday, the health minister was telling us only to leave home for essential tasks and other parts of Spain were demanding madrileños stay away. “It’s the same pattern as in March,” said José Luis, my downstairs neighbour, as he pulled up the blinds on his restaurant.
The virus has surged back so fast that Spain now has 20 per cent more new cases per capita than the US at its peak. A third of these are in Madrid, where worst-hit areas are registering one new case per fortnight for every 50 people.
Death rates and hospital admissions are lower than last time, but well above the September norm and rising fast.
Morale-boosting customs have disappeared. Nobody claps health workers, who feel betrayed by politicians
Despite the soaring numbers, restrictions were only put in place on Sunday, and then just for selected neighbourhoods. They can now only leave their barrios for work, though the rest of the city expects to join them shortly. The sensation is different this time — and mostly not in a good way. In March, we were afraid, but clueless. This time we know both how fast the virus spreads and the claustrophobia of lockdown. Morale-boosting first wave customs have disappeared. Nobody claps health workers, who go to work convinced they have been betrayed by politicians.
Madrileños have not been reckless. Almost everyone has worn a mask in public for the past six months. The opera house rebellion was a sign, indeed, that it is people — not authorities — who are demanding rules for their safety. “It was only in the cheap seats,” a season-ticket holder texted me the day after the rebellion, while the opera house declared it had been following increasingly liberal local regulations on spacing. That neatly sums up what has gone wrong in a city where public behaviour — with the occasional exception of partying youths — has been impeccable. It is the cheap end of town and the poorer suburbs that are suffering, and this is happening because of a failure of political leadership.
Demonstrations are not against lockdown but the unfairness of confining it to poor neighbourhoods
City hall is run by a man who even non-conservatives have now taken to their hearts, mayor José-Luis Martínez Almeida, but his powers are limited. Health and other key services are run by the regional government of the wider Madrid area, which took over pandemic control after the central government lifted the state of emergency in June. Unlike Italy, which maintains a state of emergency and has the virus under control, socialist prime minister Mr Sánchez relinquished the iron grip that worked so well in the spring. He lacks the parliamentary majority needed to rule by decree and the 17 powerful regional governments were chafing to take back pandemic control — even though they failed to halt the first wave. In this second wave, they are in charge. Those with responsible local governments — in Catalonia and elsewhere — are riding the storm. Those with irresponsible ones — like Madrid — are drowning. And, apart from the suffering, there is nothing Madrileños hate more than seeing Barcelona and the Catalans doing it better.
Population of Madrid
Confirmed Covid cases in the city
Hospital beds in Madrid taken up by Covid patients
Tests per day in the city
Infections per 100,000 in the city over the past week
Increase in Spanish cases in one day this month
Madrid’s total death toll
For many, the villain is Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative head of Madrid’s regional government, who treats the virus as a political challenge, rather than a matter of life and death. Ms Ayuso’s director of public health, a scientist, resigned in May when her boss tried to insist that underprepared Madrid be released early from the nationwide lockdown. She has since been slow at imposing new restrictions. By Thursday, Ms Ayuso had been forced to ask for help from the army and request an additional 300 doctors from Spain or abroad. She has blamed “immigrant lifestyle” for the surge. In fact, the chief common denominator for the 37 barrios now in confinement is not the number of Latin Americans or eastern Europeans, but low incomes and high population density. The latter, along with a culture which values both family and physical contact, explains the wider problem. Despite its wide open spaces, Spain’s population is the most densely packed in Europe, with some Madrid barrios doubling the density of London’s most heavily populated districts.
All the new lockdown areas have annual per capita incomes below 13,000 euros (£11,900). Since they are also home to Madrid’s waiters, barmen, cleaners, plumbers, supermarket staff and delivery men, metro trains into the city centre are packed and confinement may not work. Little surprise then, that recent demonstrations are not against lockdown, but about the unfairness of confining it to poor neighbourhoods.
The new outbreak appears just as we were getting used to post-pandemic changes to the city. These have also unmasked local priorities. In Madrid, we go out. We eat, drink, have coffee, breakfast, lunch or tapas in bars or restaurants. This may sound trivial or hedonistic, but it is not. Social life takes place on the street or inside a bar or restaurant. Homes are small, and reserved for family or close friends.
Post-lockdown social-distancing threatened to cripple the return to normality, but ingenuity took over. The most visible change to Madrid’s geography has been a land grab by bars and restaurants that have fenced off street parking areas, laying down decking and putting out tables and chairs. Some of this is legal, but some is not. Parking is a challenge, but Madrileños have their priorities straight. We can park, or we can go out. Everybody knows which is more important.
Some things now work better than before lockdown. Madrid’s greatest chronicler, the 19th century journalist Mariano José de Larra, famously identified the city’s bureaucrats’ favourite phrase as “come back tomorrow”. With Covid, however, they do not want even that amount of contact. Tiresome certificates can suddenly be obtained online. And when I acquired Spanish nationality last week there were no queues, no jostling, no inefficiency. Now that I am proudly Spanish I can indulge in the fantasy that this time we will get things right and show the world. There is still a small chance, after all, that Madrid will prove that serious second waves are easier to live through. In the meantime, the opera will have to space out its seating — if it does not get closed once more.
The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett is out October 15 (Bloomsbury)