MADRID – Authorities in Spain's capital on Tuesday held a ceremony to open part of a 1,000-bed emergency hospital for COVID-19 patients that critics say is no more than a vanity project, a building with beds not ready to receive patients and unnecessary now that the virus resurgence and hospitalizations are waning.
Around 200 health professionals gathered Tuesday at the entrance of the Nurse Isabel Zendal Hospital in Madrid as officials entered the state-of-the-art facility, built in 100 days at a cost of 100 million euros ($119 million), twice the original budget.
Health workers’ unions criticized the project, saying the investment should have gone instead to shoring up an existing public health system run down by years of spending cuts.
Only one of four wings of the 80,000-square-meter (nearly 20-acre) hospital — equivalent to around 10 soccer fields — is set to open initially with 240 beds, although the regional government so far has only enlisted as volunteers about one-sixth of the workers needed.
Madrid's regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, said the hospital is the first of its kind in Europe and that it will help alleviate pressure in other public hospitals by focusing on COVID-19 patients.
“I’m sorry for the criticism. We are saving lives,” Díaz Ayuso said, adding that its location, near the Spanish capital's international airport, will also be an advantage in assuring visitors that the city is safe. "A great public hospital cannot be bad news for anyone.”
The conservative regional leader has been the fiercest critic of how the leftist national government, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, has handled the pandemic, constantly objecting to preventative measures and advocating restrictions that try to preserve economic activity.
Although scientists say that heightened caution and the fear factor might have played a major role, the region’s 14-day infection rate has dropped from 500-plus cases per 100,000 inhabitants in October to 236 on Monday, below the national average of 275.
While Díaz Ayuso was accompanied Tuesday by Popular Party leader and head of the opposition, Pablo Casado, the health minister, Salvador Illa, had declined an invitation to attend saying he was already busy. No left-wing national or regional politician attended Tuesday's ceremony.
The new facility is inspired by Madrid's experience with a makeshift hospital set up in an exhibition center back in the spring, when hospitals in the region of 6.6 million were overwhelmed. That move also brought both criticism and praise.
Governments across Europe launched similar projects with different results. In Britain, seven temporary hospitals in convention centers and other venues were named the “Nightingale” hospitals after nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale — similar to Madrid's Isabel Zendal. But they ended up treating only a handful of patients. They were kept on standby, and the Nightingale hospital in Manchester recently began admitting patients again. The government is considering using the others as coronavirus vaccination centers.
In Spain, Díaz Ayuso hopes personnel from other hospitals will come to her new hospital voluntarily, but she hasn’t explained what the already strained centers they come from will do with fewer staff.
“This is nothing different to the construction of the pyramids of Egypt," Rosa López, a spokeswoman with the SummAT emergency health workers’ union, told Spanish public television TVE. Referring to the regional chief, she said: "The only thing that is intended here is glory for a woman who has had no capacity for empathy with citizens, much less with health workers.”
Spain has officially logged 1.6 million infections and over 45,000 deaths confirmed for COVID-19 since the beginning of the year.
AP reporter Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.