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.
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.
The truth is that, at the moment, the sewer data is glum. My own barrio’s drains are deemed “stable”, meaning the virus levels are no longer going down. The overall amount of virus across the region’s sewers has fallen by two-thirds from the peak in early February, but it is still above the point at which the third wave began to spread and is already flattening out. If that is an “early warning”, no one is paying attention. Rather than blaming ourselves for the current situation, Madrileños are increasingly furious about the young French people crowding our bars. Faced with a stricter lockdown at home, they are getting cheap Covid tests and flying here to party or, at least, to sit in the spring sunshine with a cool caña of beer. Airbnb owners are happy. The rest of us are not.
Our sewers don’t distinguish between French and Spanish bodily effluents, so there is no way to tell whether they are bringing in more virus and new variants, or simply helping prop up the bar economy. In fact, beyond pointing to broad tendencies, the sewage system is not much help yet, biologist Saúl Ares tells me, since everything from rain to the time of day that samples are taken can change the results. “It will be most useful when levels are low or down to zero. Then we can detect outbreaks of Covid right at the start, or flu or another virus. That will be really good,” he adds.
Mobile phone data may prove a better early warning system, while also confirming that French tourists are numerous, Ignacio Barrios of Madrid-based data-scraper Kido Dynamics tells me. He is more worried about the way Madrileños themselves are behaving.
Barrios says that when mobility in Madrid (measured as how far mobile phones travel) returns to above 70 per cent of its normal level, a new Covid wave appears three weeks later. With most barrios already freed from restrictions, Madrid broke that barrier last week.
Ayuso’s wider experiment, in other words, looks to have failed. But do Madrileños care, as long as we can drink outdoors in groups of six or less, as rules now dictate? We will soon have an opportunity to pass judgement, since Ayuso this week called regional elections on May 4.
Ayuso’s pugilistic tone goes down well with many Madrileños, but she heads a fragile Right-wing coalition and the loss of a key partner in the centre-Right Ciudadanos party could usher in a minority Left-wing government. She may, indeed, become the first Spanish political leader ousted for poor pandemic performance.
By then, the curve should be climbing again. Madrileños will also have spent Easter at home, missing their first annual beach trip, since all other parts of Spain have closed their borders to them. In an attempt to paint herself as victim (and taking a leaf out of the book written by the Catalan separatists she so dislikes), the belligerent Ayuso complains that Spain is now gripped by rampant madrileñofobia.
The innovative sewer-based early warning system, then, has yet to provide Madrid with an edge. For more anxious Madrileños, indeed, the sewer data is just another thing to fret about.
A friend’s husband is now convinced that Covid is coming out of the tap and has started drinking bottled water. That is wounding for a city that prides itself on having the best tap water in Europe, since this runs straight off the granite sierras to its north. “It’s ridiculous,” says Ares. “Madrid’s water comes from the mountains, not from our sewers.” Even Covid cannot change that.
Giles Tremlett is the author of The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War (£21, Bloomsbury)