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Two years later, Madrid is still trying to heal the scars from when COVID-19 first hit


Spain was hit especially hard during the height of the COVID pandemic. And for many residents, that's created some scars that have not been easy to heal. Manu Tomillo, who's been our local production contact here in Madrid - in other words, our fixer - is here to tell us what those years were like. Manu, welcome. Thanks so much for coming by.

MANU TOMILLO, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Manu, how bad did things get in Madrid?

TOMILLO: Well, Michel, according to a report by the European Committee of the Regions, the community of Madrid had the highest excess mortality rate in the entire EU. Official figures say that to date, there have been almost 19,000 deaths from COVID in Madrid, a region governed for 27 years by the right-wing conservative popular party, headed now by the president, Isabel Diaz Ayuso.

MARTIN: That is a terrible number. But you mentioned the local conservative government, but why is that President Ayuso's responsibility?

TOMILLO: Health management in Spain is the responsibility of each regional government. And in Madrid, the government action to fight COVID-19 has been marked by controversy.

MARTIN: Manu, though, it has to be said the pandemic was brutal all over the world. Is there a real sense that lives could have been saved here in Madrid?

TOMILLO: In some cases, probably. The case of the nursing homes controlled by the regional government of Diaz Ayuso was especially serious. Seven thousand, two hundred ninety-one people died. And I should mention that we requested an interview with Diaz Ayuso several times, but we were turned down.

MARTIN: More than 7,000 deaths - I mean, how is that possible?

TOMILLO: To explain it better, let me introduce you to two women - Mercedes and Lola.

MERCEDES: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: The last day Mercedes saw her father was March 8, 2020. On that day, days before the pandemic broke out in Spain, the central government decided to close access to centers like the one where Mercedes' father lived.

MERCEDES: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: On March 22, they called Mercedes to tell her that her father had a fever, that they were giving him paracetamol. It was very difficult to talk to relatives in the centers during that time.

MERCEDES: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: Due to some protocols signed by President Diaz Ayuso, the elderly could not be taken to hospitals to be treated. Because of those protocols and because of the precariousness of these types of public centers, it was impossible to know how these residents were doing. A similar thing happened to Lola with her father-in-law.

LOLA: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: Lola tried to talk to someone at the center, but it was impossible. Communication was poor. For these people, the feeling is that their relatives spent their last days literally abandoned.

LOLA: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: The nurses told Lola that her father-in-law was in a room unattended, but the doctors told them not to worry, that in a matter of hours, he would get better. And that same afternoon, they called them to say that he has passed away.

LOLA: (Non-English language spoken).

TOMILLO: The drama of what happened in these residences did not end once they died, as the lack of control was absolute. Lola's father-in-law was in a room for 24 hours after he died, and then his body went missing for a week until one day, they called them to tell them when the funeral was.

MARTIN: That's awful, Manu. But what about Mercedes? What happened to her father?

TOMILLO: Mercedes' father died on March 28, 2020, at the age of 84, in one of the residences controlled by the regional government. To this day, they still don't know the cause of death. So Madrid, an European capital that is capable of organizing a NATO summit at the highest level, couldn't prevent this kind of chaos and pain.

MARTIN: That's Manu Tomillo, a journalist here in Madrid. Manu, thank you so much for bringing us these stories.

TOMILLO: Thank you to you - a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.