Members of the Military at a residence for the elderly in Madrid this week. Photo AFP / Today Online

Thank God for politicians. Because when things go to custard, we have someone to blame.

But, more seriously, in a crisis we need politicians – competent politicians, that is, not smooth-tongued, blame-shifting, baby-kissing grandstanders. For three reasons.

Third, to communicate with the public. This is a time of fear and uncertainty. Not since World War II have people been asked to make such enormous sacrifices. Some will lose their lives; many will lose their jobs. We need politicians whom we can trust, who reassure us, who make us feel safe and respected. 

Second, to make tough choices. Experts offer different strategies for dealing with epidemics – mitigation, lockdown, staged lockdowns. Ultimately someone has to take responsibility for backing a particular expert.

But first of all, to lead. Good politicians use their authority to make sure that the power and resources of the state are deployed effectively.

The prime duty of a political leader is to ensure that people are safe. If they fail in this basic function, Covid-19 will rip our society apart.

Nothing illustrates this more vividly than what happened in Spain this week. It was stomach-turning, frightening and despicable. And it’s what will happen everywhere else without good politicians who are resolute and competent leaders.

On Monday, military units seconded to help in the crisis entered various residential centres for seniors in Madrid. What they found was appalling. Some of the residents were dead in their beds. Others were wandering around “in a state of complete abandonment” with poor hygiene. It sounds like a canto in Dante’s Inferno.

And worst of all, the care workers were nowhere to be seen. They appear to have fled, terrified of contracting the coronavirus.

For these residents, it must have been the worst death imaginable – alone, helpless, choking, without any accompaniment in their last moments.

Spaniards were horrified and enraged at the news. “Toda la puta vida trabajando para acabar asĂ­. QuĂ© rabia!!” was a typical comment on Twitter â€“ “your whole ******* life working to end up like this. Appalling!!”

Prosecutors have launched an investigation. Reports in the media were vague about the details, but the Minister confirmed the story.

“We are going to be absolutely implacable and forceful about the treatment that seniors are getting in those residences,” said Defence Minister Margarita Robles in a television interview. After asserting that most centres for the elderly in Spain are doing a good job, she declared that “the weight of the law will fall on those who fail to meet their obligations.”

Something went catastrophically wrong in Madrid. Carers abandoning their disabled and vulnerable charges is not just cowardice, but a total breakdown of law and order.

But is Ms Robles’s anger just a cover-up for incompetent leadership? As Defence Minister does she expect soldiers to hold their ground if they have no guns, no ammunition, no food? Stalin sent unarmed troops against the Wehrmacht machineguns at Stalingrad, but Spain is a democracy. Carers, like troops, need to be properly equipped.

And apparently they weren’t.

Even before the news of the deaths broke, El Pais reported that ambulances were refusing to come to take elderly patients with coronavirus symptoms. Care workers skipped work to avoid contagion, leading to a downward spiral in care, and an increase of infection and deaths. Many workers lacked gloves and masks. No wonder they were terrified. 

A lockdown kept children from visiting their parents – and from knowing how desperate their situation was. â€śToday [March 19] is Fathers’ Day and I can assure you it’s been a hard day. I fear for his life. And the worst part of all is that if he gets infected, no one will do anything to help him,” Laura GĂłmez, the daughter of a resident in a senior home where there are four coronavirus cases, wrote in an email to El Pais.

The head of the Association of Social Services Directors and Managers, José Manuel Ramírez, denounced Ms Robles’s statements as “shameful.” “Workers are putting themselves on the line, without resources, without healthcare support, without protective gear,” he said. Employees who are acting “like heroes and heroines” should not be “criminalised”.

It remains to be seen how Madrid’s disaster unfolded. But it seems clear that there is a crisis of leadership in the government. Nothing in civilian life creates more fear than infectious disease. When care workers felt overwhelmed, they had no one to back them up. And they turned tail and fled. It can’t be justified, but it’s understandable.

What’s not understandable is why the leaders had not given their front-line troops adequate support. That is a good politician’s first job in a crisis. A bad politician’s job is cover his butt. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet