A Virus Mightier Than Covid-19

With every passing day, the coronavirus response inches closer to shutting off public life entirely, and few object to politics going the way of suspended sporting events, cancelled flights and a quarantined workforce.

A political blackout of sorts is in fact already under way — US primary campaigns have called off rallies, countries are mulling election delays and where parliaments are still meeting, infected and at-risk members are staying home, while bills and debates focus solely on passing bailouts and other risk-mitigatory measures. The otherwise technocratic work of designing relief and stimulus policies has turned into a vexed exercise precisely because everything else has become a non-issue, channeling partisanship towards the country’s all-absorbing crisis.

Could the coronavirus be the external threat that binds us together and soothes our partisan animosities? Or could tribalism and polarization prove a mightier virus? Spain offers an answer as bleak as its COVID-19 numbers.

The country woke on Sunday to 589 cases, 28 deaths and scheduled marches in every major city to commemorate International Women’s Day, backed by every major party bar the right-wing Vox. In hindsight, the weekend was the turning point in the virus’ exponential spread — the hosel in the hockey-stick curve — , with a death toll that has risen to 84 and a case count surpassing 3.000 since — a threefold and fivefold increase, respectively.

With these looming ravages in predictable sight as the weekend unfolded, anything short of calling off the marches would have been beyond reckless, a political show of strength overriding the basest of safety concerns. Instead, the coalition government of the left-of-center PSOE and the far-left Podemos doubled down on their call to march, and Madrid ended up awash with 120.000 marchers, and Barcelona 50.000.

The government was soon forced to acknowledge the blunder, claiming COVID-19’s spread since the march far surpassed its projections of Sunday. Even taking it at its word, this is a mockery of an excuse, one that feeds the sense of their own recklessness and lack of control. It is COVID-19’s very viral nature, not the starting base at which it began its deathly expansion from Sunday onwards, that makes any agglomeration of such proportions a hotbed of contagion. The government not only failed to call the marches off — it actively riled up thousands to attend. Some are now speaking of an affront to public health.

PSOE and Podemos would have been alone reaping the misery of their own failings, if other parties hadn’t sinned too. That same day, the right-wing Vox was due to hold a rally of its own at a sports arena in southeastern Madrid. Despite having chastised the government for allegedly downplaying the risks of contagion, it went ahead with the meeting as planned, claiming it too was working with the government’s deflated figures — cue the inconsistency — and chose to avoid the panic that breaking with its rivals’ insouciance would have sowed. Javier Ortega-Smith, a Vox chieftain, has since tested positive, and thus attracted much of the flak for the party’s recklessness in holding the meeting.

Politically, it was a lost opportunity to pick up the mantle of prudence. Morally, it sinks Vox down to the bankrupt level of PSOE and Podemos. Or does it?

Any conceivable scenario of COVID-19’s expansion should have kept politicians and their voters from gathering in any significant numbers, but some have speculated that the government’s undercounting of cases was in fact an excuse to go ahead with the feminist march. A number of its ministers were seen wearing latex gloves, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is rumored to have beefed up precautions at Moncloa to a level not yet mandated to the citizenry, such as thoroughly disinfecting every room he enters.

It is one hell of an outrage to put a political tour de force ahead of government’s first and foremost duty, that of protecting its people. In this, neither Vox nor its leftist rivals should be excused. But it is a whole other ballgame to urge people to flood the streets en masse after deliberately downplaying the risks, all while taking precautions without asking others to do likewise for themselves. The optics here are far worse for PSOE and Podemos.

Unfortunately, fear of the virus turns us voters into panicked protection-seekers, while the politicians orchestrating the response never entirely abandon electoral concerns — a key fact to bear in mind as the outbreak unfolds. Make no mistake: not even the worst pandemic makes selfless rulers, and some of our all-too-self-interested leaders will be, if anything, emboldened to use the virus’ ravages for political gain. There’s always an election around the corner when the storm ends. In refusing to keep their powder dry, and covering their recklessness by pointing fingers at the other side, Spain’s political parties have proved as much.

The latest test-positive case among Spain’s political class involves Equality Minister Irene Montero — and possibly her husband Pablo Iglesias — , a spearhead of Sunday’s march. Don’t be surprised if some greet the news cheerfully — they’d simply be espousing the politics-above-the-virus mindset of their reckless leaders.

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Jorge González-Gallarza

Jorge González-Gallarza

A writer in Paris, Jorge's work has featured in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The American Conservative, The National Interest and elsewhere.