Spain Becomes COVID-19 Hotspot Again — But Why?

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. 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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US, Russia Signal Willingness to Extend Nuclear Arms Pact

The U.S. and Russia signaled their willingness Tuesday to reach a new deal on nuclear arms control by working toward a freeze on warhead arsenals for a year past the February expiration of the current weapons pact.
 
Russia proposed extending the accord for the New START arms-control treaty, with the U.S. State Department hours later saying it appreciated Russia’s “willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control.”
 
The State Department said the U.S. “is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same.”
 
Moscow said it was “ready, together with the United States, to make a political commitment to ‘freeze’ the number of nuclear warheads held by the parties” through February 2022 while a new treaty is negotiated.  
 
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 2010 and imposes limits on the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals. It can be extended for five years, which Moscow has said it is ready to do without preconditions.
 
The possible extension of the pact — even by a year — would mark a rare improvement in bilateral relations between the two countries on arms control.
 
The White House already had withdrawn from other arms-control treaties with Moscow, accusing the Kremlin of violating them and claiming the agreements benefited Russia more than the United States. This included the Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and it unilaterally exited Open Skies, a pact that permitted the two countries to conduct reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory.
 
Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the Nov. 3 presidential election, supports extending New START “to use that as a foundation for new arms-control arrangements.”  
 
Biden has said the treaty, which was negotiated when he was vice president under President Barack Obama, is an “anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia.”

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Belarus Protesters Torn on How Much Change They Really Want

Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus under a system of tight control inherited from the former Soviet Union and largely dependent on Russia.  His opponents denounce Lukashenko as repressive and want him out, while his supporters point to Belarus’ record of stability and low unemployment as reasons for him to stay.  Jonathan Spier narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina in Minsk.Producer: Henry Hernandez 

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Danish Man Convicted of Murder Aboard Homemade Submarine Captured

A Danish man serving a life sentence for the torture and murder of a Swedish journalist aboard his homemade submarine was apprehended Tuesday after escaping from prison.Danish police said Peter Madsen was caught shortly after escaping from a prison in suburban Copenhagen. The tabloid Ekstra Bladet posted a video of Madsen after his capture near the prison.Madsen was sentenced to life in prison in 2018 in Copenhagen for killing Swedish journalist Kim Wall after he lured Wall aboard his submarine in 2017 with the promise of an interview. Madsen dismembered Wall’s body and dumped it into the sea.Madsen, who denies killing Wall, lost an appeal shortly after apologizing to the journalist’s family. Madsen claims she accidently died inside the submarine but acknowledged he tossed her body parts into the Baltic Sea.Life sentences in Denmark typically mean serving 16 years in prison, but convicts can be jailed longer if authorities determine they would pose a threat to society if released. 

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Imperial College London Recruiting Healthy Volunteers to Infect with COVID-19

The British government is supporting human trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine in which healthy human subjects will be infected with the virus to accelerate the process.The tests will be conducted by Imperial College London as part of a partnership between government, laboratory and trial services company hVIVO and the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.The government is providing $43.5 million to fund the project, which, if approved by regulators and an ethics committee, would start in January with results expected by May 2021.Researchers say they are seeking recruits between the ages of 18 and 30 with no previous history or symptoms of COVID-19 and no underlying health conditions or adverse factors. They say in the initial phase of the testing, their goal would be to discover the least amount of the virus it takes to infect a person.Once that phase is complete, the researchers say they would study how the vaccine works in the body to stop or prevent COVID-19 and investigate possible treatments.The risk for the volunteers is that at the time of their infection, there will be no known cure. The Imperial College lead researcher on the project, Dr. Chris Chiu, insists the safety of the volunteers is the number one priority.  He said while no study like this is risk free, but scientists would work as hard as possible to limit the risks.The upside, Chiu says, is that these so-called “human challenge studies” can increase understanding of a virus like COVID-19 in unique ways and accelerate the development of treatments and vaccines. 

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Poll Finds Many Spaniards Favor Dissolving Monarchy

Protests against the monarchy have spread in Spain and polls show the nation is divided over whether it should be abolished. Alfonso Beato has more from Barcelona in this story narrated by Jonathan Spier. 
Camera: Alfonso Beato  Produced by: Jon Spier
 

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