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The Madrid experiment: is the city’s innovative sewer-based Covid warning system actually useful?

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At ground level, it looks like a fiesta. Madrid has seen a surge in tourists visiting from the rest of Europe after our restaurants and bars were allowed to flout the national 10pm curfew and stay open until 11pm.

But beneath the crowds gathering in the streets (and in a battle with London to avoid going down in history as Europe’s worst Covid-hit capital city), the Spanish capital has unsheathed a new weapon – our sewers.

As well as exhaling the virus, we also flush it down the toilet and Madrileños can now track the density of Covid particles flowing through our drains in something close to real time. “It is the best early warning system for Covid-19 in sewer water in the whole of Europe,” the head of the regional government, Isabel Diaz Ayuso claims. But will this really save us from further suffering?

As of a few weeks ago, a neatly designed website map tells me how much of the virus is running through my neighbourhood’s sewers and whether this is an improvement on a few days ago. The website belongs to Madrid’s 170-year-old public water company, Canal Isabel II, which sends people down several hundred manholes to collect samples for laboratory testing twice a week. The map grades the sewers in each barrio or town (given that it covers the wider Madrid region of 6.5 million people) for their virus behaviour and paints them in colours designed to soothe or alarm.

For obsessive doom-scrollers and chart-watchers, this opens up a whole new field of compulsive Covid tracking. Has my sewer turned dark blue? The tests are now part of a battery of measurements relied on by Ayuso for her controversial version of pandemic control, using micro-targeted, scaled lockdowns at barrio level rather than imposing them across the entire city. In some places, that has made crossing the road a crime — since one side is in a lockdown zone, but the other one is not. “It’s a nightmare to control,” a sergeant in Madrid’s municipal police told me. In what has surely become the most laissez-faire European city outside Sweden, the sewer tests should also help show whether Madrid’s barrio-by-barrio strategy works.

Results have been mixed. When a second Covid wave rolled like a tsunami across Spain in the autumn, Ayuso broke ranks with Spain’s other 16 autonomous regions (which are in charge of Covid rules) by keeping lockdown light and local. The strategy provoked incredulity, yet Madrid’s numbers came down in almost exactly the same way as in the rest of Spain. When it came to relaxing those measures, Madrid stormed ahead of the rest of the country, since Ayuso’s view on the trade-off between lives lost and jobs destroyed skews heavily in favour of the latter.

As Spain now squashes a third wave that began in January, Madrid’s curfew is still only from 11pm to 6am. That may feel harsh in a city that normally prides itself on being a place that never sleeps, but elsewhere in Spain people are being sent home at 6pm.

Since Madrid reputedly has the most bars in the world, and every bar has now built an outside terrace over the parking spaces in front of it, the city hums in the evenings and at weekends.

AP

The charge to return to normality continues and, as of Friday, only a few thousand people from one small town are still not allowed to cross their boundaries. Yet the results of this strategy now look dire. Madrid is struggling harder than anywhere else to shake off the third wave. It has Spain’s worst virus rate and it is picking up again. So, are we headed for a fourth wave, or can the early warning system in our sewers prevent that? The question matters especially because, like the rest of Europe, Madrid’s vaccine push is painfully slow.

This week, even the campaign to vaccinate the over-eighties had to be suspended. We had run out of doses. Madrid is determined to provide double doses to the elderly before it starts vaccinating younger groups. Public enthusiasm for vaccines is high, there just isn’t enough to go around.

AFP via Getty Images

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