Recovery And Truth

Madrid Gran Via2

Enrique Badía y Liberal | While we remain attentive to the incidence rate and the numbers of hospitalised and dead, answers to crucial questions in any crisis are scarce or in doubt: what is happening, how long will it last? It is easy to answer that we are contending with a pandemic. However, it is not clear that we know enough about the how and why of each response chosen to deal with it, and even less about the path ahead and the consequences that will follow. There is such a contrast in the range of judgements, opinions, assessments and prognoses that it triggers other questions: what to believe, who to believe? The discrepancies are not nuanced, suggesting that someone, perhaps more than one, is not telling the truth. The truth. Beyond its intrinsic value in terms of decency and honesty, in periods of crisis it takes on a special relevance; not handled in just any old way, but adjusted to the Anglo-Saxon procedural formulation: the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In democracy, this is the cotton wool test. And for now, there is not much to be hopeful about here. The somewhat cruel uncertainty associated with the damned virus – it has been going on for two years now – is complicated, if not aggravated, by sharp divergences about the situation, scant, if not contradictory, information, and a lack – due to laziness? – of education to orientate and raise society’s awareness.

In addition to the human drama associated with the accursed virus, with irreversible loss of life and persistent, undetermined after-effects, there is no small difficulty in understanding the socio-economic repercussions and their ultimate scope. It is not clear that we are being told the whole truth.

Countering triumphalism with sensationalism does not help, but rather makes it difficult to return to – whatever that means – normality. The past twenty-odd months of response and management have provided everything: good, bad, better, worse… enough to draw conclusions. That is why it is particularly reprehensible that many governments, including Spain’s, are reluctant to promote a professional, rigorous and independent evaluation of everything that has been done or not done. It would provide an essential tool for dealing with future crises that – hopefully – may not arise. Truth can always be learned from truth. Partisan management, on the other hand, only serves to add a few minutes of glory amongst the followers and make things worse. Entering into counter-factual reflections, speculating whether some of the socio-economic devastation could have been lighter with a different – more rational – response, does not erase the evidence that activity came to an almost complete halt for several months in 2020. And that a good part of the sectors remain, at best, at half throttle. Hence, to proclaim that recovery is in sight and is bright clashes with common sense. It is true that some indicators are evolving favourably. The most celebrated one, employment, has yet to be cleared up in the next Labour Force Survey (EPA) as to how much of the addition comes from the public sector. But, without going into it in more depth, it is not necessary to be an expert to see that lines of activity with notable weight in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment are still limited and limping along. The hotel and catering and tourism sectors are often mentioned, but they are not the only ones that are far from returning to pre-pandemic scenarios (2019), with no prospects or temporary certainty of achieving this. The diagnosis of any complex economy requires considering and combining multiple data, expectations and even a certain dose of magic, in order to be useful or, better said, truthful. To conceal that the breakdown has been major and to hush up that it will be costly to repair is a form of deception… or cheating. It is significant that the outstanding grade which Prime Minister Sánchez has assigned to his economic policy collides with a recent OECD analysis, placing Spain’s economy amongstthe worst performing and slowest to recover. At the same time…this cannot be true.

Looking to the immediate future, it would be good to abandon the delusion that the road back to prosperity will be completely free: “European funds will save us! Whether connected to the pandemic or not, the list of threats is worrying: inflation, energy, raw materials, manageable debt, geopolitical instability… most of them well beyond domestic capacity to handle. Whether many or few, it is likely that new sacrifices will have to be added to the sacrifices already made to get us out of this; better sooner than later. Not making clear how and where we stand is a terrible way to encourage efforts, both collectively and individually. It also carries the dangerous burden of raising expectations that, if not met, can lead to disillusionment, frustration or worse. Critics undoubtedly have material on which to base their judgement, but it cannot and should not lead to a denial of achievements that even the most optimistic did not foresee. Most notoriously, vaccination. In less than a year, the pharmaceutical industry has made millions of doses available, admittedly with a huge injection of budgetary funds and efficient certification agencies. And, unevenly, the health systems have been able to organise mass vaccination campaigns, something in which Spain has excelled, overcoming a significant amount of previous scepticism. Nor has the health response capacity been bad: except for the first few weeks, there has been no serious collapse in the hospital network – both public and private – and primary care has held up decently until the Omicron emergency. That said, it should be pointed out that this has been more a consequence of the performance of the professional healthcare collectives than the institutional management of the model – which could be improved.

Going back to the beginning, it is worth remembering how hard it was to accept, or rather to recognise, the evidence that the threat was planetary and lethal. The false and possibly self-serving illusion of being safe lasted as long as the numbers of infected, hospital admissions and deaths took to implode. Even more serious have been the announcements that the end was near, the embarrassing back-and-forth on the use of masks, now yes, now no. Or the spasmodic succession of restrictions and relaxations, confusing, undermining prudence and facilitating the spread of the virus, probably more than the irresponsible denialist behaviour and the lies now called fakes. All of this has eroded, when most needed, our trust in leaders that will not be easy to regain. It has even affected the success of the vaccines: the message that the threat had been averted was not pedagogical, as it was sent to citizens anxious to leave behind restrictions and precautions. Reality has confirmed what some specialists have already pointed out: none of the vaccines discovered and administered immunise one hundred percent; they minimise, which is no small thing, the most lethal effects of the disease. Nothing less, but nothing more.

The propensity to blame all failures on those in power is proverbial; some will say that is what they are there for. But that is not always the whole truth. This crisis has revealed quite a few things: in short, that some things work, others do not, and several can be improved and therefore urgently need to be reformulated. Very worrying shortcomings have been revealed at the organisational-institutional level. Of particular note has been the misalignment between the executive and the judiciary and, more worryingly, within each of them. The courts have challenged or invalidated governmental acts, from the declaration of the first state of alarm to successive restrictions, with an unexplained doctrinal disparity between territorial jurisdictions. This is not due to a shortage of jurists in the public bureaucracy whose mission is to ensure that the acts of the administrations comply with the law. The strategic-health asymmetry between the autonomous communities and the central government has been just as remarkable, if not more so. There has been mutual disloyalty, clumsy political manoeuvring, perhaps even some uncontrolled ego, but above all the lack of efficient coordination and cooperation bodies, instruments, forums and tools. In truthful recognition, it would be worth taking the opportunity to learn. As it would be interesting to measure the use of technology to alleviate the effects of paralysis: optimal in the private sphere, disappointing in public areas.

Without succumbing to opposing temptations, without formulating an amendment to the whole or falling into quasi-Adamist triumphalism, there is plenty of material to explain how and why things have gone the way they have gone and are the way they are. In more than a few parameters, Spain has fared worse than comparable countries and economies. It led in the percentage of healthcare workers infected in the first few months, it is amongst the countries with the highest rates of contagion, lethality and mortality, and its economic indicators have evolved less positively than the rest of the more developed nations (OECD). Not to mention minor aspects, such as the prices – falsely controlled – of masks, tests, gels, etc. Overlooking it, hiding it, let alone asserting the contrary is a very clear form of lying; what is commonly known as lying. If we rescue the sentence of the late Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba: “Spaniards deserve a government that does not lie to them” (Atocha bombings, 2004), we could add that the recovery also needs it. Or, since everything stems from a health shock, it should be pointed out that a therapy only works when the diagnosis is correct, recognised and credible. Exactly what is in short supply…here and now. A governing team can survive by hiding or disguising truths, just as its political adversaries can come to power by doing the same in the opposite direction, but the opposite can also happen: the lie can work against their respective interests. It is a sure thing that in such a dynamic they will lose the rest, leaving the recovery as a slogan and bequeathing new doses of frustration. Of course, there is always time to rectify… or not.  

About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.