Polices officers patrol a street before closing all bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. due to the new measures to prevent the…
FILE - Police officers patrol a street before closing all bars and restaurants at 10 p.m. due to the new measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Oct. 16, 2020. (AP)

MADRID - Spain this week will become the first European country to report one million coronavirus cases since the pandemic started.   

Despite bringing in one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, experts say that Spain has reached this grim milestone because the pandemic has exposed some deep flaws in its health system and model of government. 

At the start of the week, the country had reached 974,449 reported COVID-19 cases nationwide and the figure was likely to reach the million mark by the weekend.  

Some six million Spaniards — about 13% of the population of 47 million — are now living under some kind of restrictions to try to curb a second wave. 

A health worker speaks on the mobile phone inside Hospital del Mar, after Catalonia's government imposed new restrictions in an effort to control a new outbreak of the coronavirus disease, in Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 20, 2020. (Reuters)

Despite this, Spain's health minister, Salvador Illa, said the government was considering imposing a curfew in Madrid, the region with the highest number of cases in the country, to try to halt the soaring number of infections. 

Health experts point to the way Spain lifted its draconian lockdown too early in June under pressure from business-friendly, right-wing regional governments. 

Other factors cited were the lack of adequate track-and-trace mechanisms, the failure to provide for an itinerant migrant population which spread the illness while picking fruit harvests around the country, and Spain's naturally gregarious population who assumed the threat was over when the state of emergency ended. 

Against this background, however, analysts say another factor has been key: Spain's bitter political polarization and its devolved model of state. 

Spain has one of the most decentralized states in Europe, whose 17 regions took charge of managing the pandemic when the lockdown ended in June as health provision is normally one of their responsibilities. 

FILE - A worker wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus prepares to close a bar at 10 p.m. due to new measures against COVID-19, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Oct. 17, 2020. (AP)

However, tensions soon flared between the desire of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to keep in charge of the pandemic and some conservative-run regions whose priority was keeping the economy alive and avoiding another lockdown despite rising infection rates. 

This reached its peak after the central government and the right-wing Madrid regional government spent weeks sparring over how to halt a rising contagion rate in the Spanish capital. 

Sánchez insisted on following the advice of health experts who recommended a partial lockdown of the entire city and eight outlying towns while Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the Madrid regional leader who is on the hard-right of the conservative People's Party, said the measures would destroy the economy. 

As the disagreement dragged on, Madrid's contagion rate rose to over 730 cases per 100,000 in the previous 14 days, the second highest in Europe after the tiny state of Andorra, according to World Health Organization data. 

Eventually, Sanchez's patience snapped and the government imposed a partial lockdown, only for Ayuso to concede defeat ungracefully by trying to fight the measure in the Constitutional Court but failing. 

Since the lockdown came into force on October 9, the rate has dropped to 509 cases per 100,000 but it still accounts for a third of all contagions in Spain. 

Madrid's Emergency Service UVI-8 unit's members push a stretcher with a patient at Clinico San Carlos hospital amid the coronavirus outbreak in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 19, 2020. (Reuters)

Imposing any curfew in Madrid will depend on whether an agreement is reached with the opposition, but in Spain's fractious political environment, the People's Party, the far-right Vox, which control 140 seats in the parliament between them, are likely to oppose such a move. 

"The health crisis has demonstrated the weaknesses of our system of de-centralized system," Lluis Orriols, professor of politics at the Carlos III University in Madrid, told VOA in an interview. 

"There are countries where the regions lead and they are more devolved. The problem here is that of confrontation and there are no mechanisms of cooperation between the institutions." 

Manuel Fernández, owner of Restaurante Braseria Los Olivos in Malgrat de Mar, a town 56 kilometers north of Barcelona, has been fined $70,839 for refusing to abide by restrictions imposed by authorities in Catalonia in which bars and restaurants can only serve takeaways.  

His protest is an example of rising frustration with a political class who are not focusing on implementing the correct measures to combat COVID-19.  

"Restaurants are not spreading this disease. We have abided by all their restrictions in the past and we are going out of business. I am no communist but someone needs to make a point: It is the politicians who should sort out their priorities, not crush normal people," he told VOA. 

Alex Arenas, an expert in public health at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona near Barcelona who advises the Catalan regional government, blamed Spain's current position on the early lifting of lockdown, the lack of track-and-trace systems, pressure on a depleted health system and the false perception that the crisis was under control in the summer. 

"The political polarization has been dire as we have seen, for example, between the government and Madrid. These party battles represent a loss of precious time in terms of the anticipating and taking action against the pandemic," he told VOA. 

"It results in a lack of confidence among the public in what measures we need to adopt." 

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