The Covid-19 pandemic heralded for many, particularly in Europe, the “return of the state.” Nation-states were supposedly the natural and proper level for pandemic policymaking, as they supplied most of the subsidies keeping economic activity afloat during lockdowns. Early on, the most intense debates concerned which national response was best: the Italian model, the closest thing to a Chinese lockdown that a liberal democracy could manage; or the Swedish model, an almost laissez-faire approach. Few paid attention to how cities and regional governments responded. In Spain, however, it’s at the regional level that the pandemic’s most interesting and useful lessons may be found.
Madrid’s approach to Covid stands out among other regions in Europe. In fact, we might even speak of a “Madrid model.” During Covid’s first wave in the spring of 2020, Madrid locked down like other regions. (Note that “Madrid” here refers not to the Municipality of Madrid but to the surrounding Community of Madrid, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous comunidades.) Despite the lockdowns, Madrid paid a high price in lives lost to Covid, owing to its many transportation links and its airport’s status as a hub for international travel.
In the pandemic’s second wave—roughly from September 2020 through Christmas—Spain devolved substantial powers to the comunidades, allowing the Community of Madrid to craft and deploy its own pandemic response. Madrid’s president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who recently visited the United States, made it her government’s goal to keep the city open for business.
Ayuso’s administration settled on a less-restrictive policy because Madrid was one of only a few regional governments seriously to consider the long-term costs of lockdowns in outcomes like depression, drug consumption, and domestic violence. Madrid’s analysis showed that the impact of lockdowns went far beyond the immediate, short-term economic hit to the tourism and catering industries.
Thus, lockdowns became not the foundation of Madrid’s pandemic strategy but a weapon of last resort—one to be used primarily at the local level, in small districts known as “Basic Health Zones.” The government deployed mass screenings in these zones, using some 7 million Covid antigen tests (spread among a regional population of 6.7 million). It also studied how the virus moved through the region by testing wastewater at some 289 sampling points with a system called VIGÍA, which essentially allowed the government to screen the whole Community of Madrid dozens of times over. The early warnings this testing provided allowed for quick action when new hotspots emerged.
Many national leaders believed that it was their job to protect their populations by locking everything down and sustaining people with subsidies. Ayuso, in contrast, wanted to avoid such a force-fed economy, believing that an open society should not give way to a “closed” one, even during a pandemic. A conscious political goal—preventing any further general lockdowns of the region—drove government policy.
This approach, Ayuso claimed, was consistent with the “spirit” of Madrid, a city known for being welcoming and inclusive. Divining the soul of a city is a difficult exercise, but Ayuso appears to have gotten it right, striking a balance between staying open and controlling Covid. Over the past week, for example, Madrid’s Covid cases have ranked in the middle of the pack among Spain’s autonomous regions, at six per 100,000; deaths per 100,000 now stand at 0.12, just below the national average of 0.14.
Voters have taken note of this performance. Elected as president of the Madrid region in August 2019, Ayuso was forced to lead a coalition government, since her party had won a meager 22.23 percent of the vote and lost nearly 20 seats in the regional elections earlier in the year. Yet by May 2021, after months in which Madrid was the only place in Europe where you could watch a Wagner opera live in a theater, Ayuso’s party had won 44.8 percent of the vote and more than doubled its seats in the regional assembly.
Political leaders, particularly in Europe, have claimed that no alternatives exist to lockdowns. Until now, Sweden was the main exception, but many Europeans dismissed its approach as uncaring. The case of Madrid now offers a fresh alternative. Perhaps the push to keep cities open isn’t reckless libertarianism but a means of creating the right incentives to manage—but not micromanage—the pandemic.
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