MADRID – Heightened restrictions to stem Europe's fastest coronavirus spread in some of Madrid's working-class neighborhoods brought a heated debate over the prevalence of inequality in Spain back into the spotlight Monday.
The measures, including a requirement to justify trips out of the neighborhoods and reduced occupancy in shops and restaurants, affect some 860,000 residents and have been met with protests because many of those affected feel that authorities are stigmatizing the poor.
Spain is struggling to contain a second wave of the virus, which has killed at least 30,600 people, according to the country’s health ministry.
Madrid has become the epicenter of contagion, with an average rate of infection — 746 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in two weeks — nearly three times the national average of 280. Europewide, that number last week was 76.
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist, met on Monday with Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the conservative opposition Popular Party, agreeing for central and regional officials to hold bi-weekly technical and weekly political meetings to coordinate a stronger response to the outbreaks.
The central government is going to contribute by providing more health resources and military help, Sánchez said without elaborating.
“Madrid requires a special plan,” the prime minister said. “We should be ready to contemplate other scenarios if it were necessary.”
A few dozen protesters clad in Spanish flags called for Sánchez to step down outside of the Madrid government’s meeting place.
On Sunday, hundreds had also taken their grievances to the streets, clapping in unison while shouting for Ayuso to step down. The protesters also called for the new restrictions to be extended to all the city, expressing anger at authorities for acting late and targeting the poorest areas while not doing enough to reinforce the region’s health centers with more staff.
“These measures are very difficult for us but we are sure that in one or two weeks we will start seeing results," Ayuso said Monday, adding that Madrid's status as an economic and logistics hub makes it the “perfect breeding ground for a virus like this.”
On the first day of the new limitations, police in the Spanish capital and its surrounding towns stopped people coming in and out of the targeted areas but only to relay information. Enforcement of stay-in orders will be mandatory starting from Wednesday and those not justifying their trips for work, study or medical reasons will face fines, regional authorities said.
The targeted areas have a 14-day rate of transmission above 1,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, some of the highest in Europe. They are also densely populated with less-affluent residents who cram into small apartments and use public transportation to work in manual jobs in other areas of the city.
Some people online shared photos of crammed rush-hour subway trains, complaining that the problem was not in the suburbs but due to the lack of sufficient public transport.
In the hard-hit Vallecas district, Raul Hernández said that his coffee shop expected less business.
“Yesterday afternoon the change started to be seen and today we are not doing anything,” he said. “People are accepting it well, they understand it but they are afraid.”
The inequality debate even spun off to Spain’s main opera stage, where a performance had to be canceled over the weekend amid loud protests from spectators in the cheaper, upper-circle seats who perceived that the theater was leaving more empty seats among the high-payers.
Videos shared online by several attendees to Sunday’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” at the Royal Theater in Madrid showed some full rows in the highest — and cheapest — gallery, while attendance in the pricier floor area had been reduced, leaving empty seats.
Luis Delgado, 59, told The Associated Press that he and his husband were furious at a loudspeaker announcement calling on the audience to respect social distancing after they were earlier asked to take their seats and found out that they were all crammed in.
The performance was canceled after several rounds of applause and shouting during the performance and despite the theater relocating some spectators and offering to return the value of their tickets, the Royal Theater said in a statement.
“It wasn't just a few people,” Delgado said. “People became angrier because they don't go to the theater to get their money back, they go because they want to enjoy the opera.”
The Royal Theater, which has launched an investigation into the incident, said that attendance had been reduced to 905 seats, or 51.5% of the total. Current rules in Madrid limit cultural performances to 75% of the audience.
Brito reported from Barcelona. Alicia León in Madrid contributed to this report.