Spanish Doctors Say No to Barbarism

Throughout the crisis of the last four years, too many European governments have shown a depressing willingness to target and stigmatize some of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in society as a distraction from their own failings.

Whether it’s disabled ‘benefit scroungers’, asylum seekers, ‘illegal immigrants’ or simply immigrants per se, this process of victimization and stigmatization invariably depicts certain groups as parasitical intruders,  usurpers of national privilege, and a drain on the public purse.

On the one hand such depictions provide a pretext for punitive exclusionary measures that uphold the exclusive rights and privileges of a virtuous (national) majority.   At the same time this process of victimization provides convenient outlets for popular resentment and anger at the grim consequences of austerity.

It isn’t surprising that so many governments have gone down this route.  Terrified of the financial markets,  mired in an intractable economic crisis that they are unable to solve, committed to a cuts agenda that is inflicting immeasurable harm on societies across the continent, even as it acts as a catalyst for yet another transfer of wealth and resources to the private sector, Europe’s politicians need all the distractions they can get.

It is therefore only natural that they should attempt to reinforce the distinctions between us and them, between ‘our people’ and the alien usurpers on our national territory, between the virtuous majorities of ‘hard-pressed families’ and the various manifestations of the undeserving poor who are supposedly fleecing the taxpayer and undermining ‘our’ public services.

In Greece, politicians routinely depict undocumented migrants as a threat to public health, and plans are now underway to put them in internment camps.  In the UK Coalition government policies have made it virtually impossible for asylum seekers to access legal aid, and disabled benefits claimants deemed fit for work are now liable to be fined if they don’t go out to look for work.

Now the Spain’s conservative Partido Popular government has decreed that approximately 150,000 undocumented migrants will no longer receive free medical treatment, regardless of their medical condition or their ability to pay.

To their immense credit, 1,650 Spanish doctors and health professionals in five of Spain’s autonomous regions, including Catalonia and Galicia, have declared that they will not obey the new law.  These refuseniks have called for an extension of their ‘objection campaign’ in this wonderful video, which brilliantly illustrates the inherent barbarity of the PP’s legislation law through an ironic inversion of the Hippocratic Oath:

For those that don’t know Spanish, the translation is as follows:


I swear that I will use my medical knowledge for the benefit of Spaniards and legalized foreigners.

I swear that I will put aside my ethics and morals en periods of financial crisis.

I swear that I will not allow human rights to get in the way of austerity measures and the maximization of profits

I swear that I will not use the facilities of the state to diagnose undocumented migrants.

I swear that I will not refuse health care to anybody, except those who don’t have a Foreigner’s Identity Card or a National Identity Card.

I swear that I will not prescribe medicines for AIDs to anyone without social security.

The video closes with this magnificent declaration:

But I swear that we will never comply with everything that we have just said.  The Health Reform asks us to leave undocumented people without treatment.

But health is a universal right.  Therefore we have sworn to provide care without discrimination and we are going to continue to do so.

Because curing people is our obligation and also our right.

Indeed it is.   And in their insistence on the universality of that right even in the midst of one of the worst financial crises in Spanish history, Spain’s doctors and health workers have delivered a beautiful message to their own country and to the rest of the continent.



Spain Loads Up With Rubber Bullets

The epic struggle waged by the miners of Asturias to defend their jobs and communities has clearly struck a chord amongst many Spaniards, as the magnificent reception given by Madrileños  to the 400 km marchers clearly demonstrates.

The miners have also generated considerable support outside Spain.   Yesterday’s Channel 4 News had a special report from a reporter who accompanied the marchers from beginning to end.   Even the Telegraph had a reasonably sympathetic article on the clashes in Madrid yesterday, in which a trade unionist marching in solidarity with the miners declared ‘ This is a struggle for the working class. The people need to be here on the street to say ‘enough is enough.”

This sympathy is not hard to fathom.  At a time when the Spanish government, with the approval of the EU and the IMF,  is willing to wreck the lives of millions in order to bailout its corrupt and discredited banking system, it refuses to continue the subsidies on which the Asturian mines and their communities depend.

It’s not necessary to have a degree in political science or economics to understand the very clear message behind this discrepancy; that the powerful financial institutions that have brought Spain to the brink of ruin can be rescued and even rewarded for their efforts, while the mining communities of the mountains and valleys of Asturias are essentially disposable and not worth preserving.

The miners have fought – as Asturian miners always will – to defend their jobs and communities, and their struggle is beginning to have a galvanizing effect on the Spanish working class.  Its appearance on the streets of Madrid has clearly rattled the government.

On the same day that Mariano Rajoy announced yet another swathe of austerity measures that he described as ‘not pleasant…but imperative’ in order to please Spain’s foreign creditors,  riot police fired volleys of rubber bullets at the miners and their supporters.

All of which constitutes a disgrace, to be sure, but we can expect to see such behaviour repeated and intensified in the months and years to come.   Because in the end police truncheons and rubber bullets – and worse – are the logical and inevitable instruments of the gross injustice that is being perpetrated in Spain and across the continent.

The financial and political elites overseeing Europe’s age of austerity,  as they gaze down on the anthill world from their boardrooms and offices,  though one suspects that they probably do and are simply not too bothered about it.

The miners of Asturias have pricked this bubble of complacency, and forced Spain – and the world – to acknowledge them.   In a dark and corrupt era, when white collar  larceny on a truly monumental scale is compounded and facilitated by governments across the continent under the mantra of ‘there-is-no-alternative-to-austerity’,    their militancy, determination and commitment to their communities should be an inspiration to all of us, and a reminder that resistance is still possible – and in fact essential.


Spain’s surplus people

In our era of no-choice austerity, we are often told that politicians are obliged to make tough decisions, but some governments are setting new standards in callousness and inhumanity in their attempts to put their country’s finances in order.

Take the decision by the Spanish government to deny medical treatment to ‘illegal’ immigrants.

Under the new law, which comes into force in September, immigrants without residence papers and work permits will no longer receive medical treatment, except in emergency cases.

The main reason for this disgraceful decision, as always, is financial: the ruling Partido Popular believes that  the state will be able to save between 500 to 1,000 million euros per year by  denying medical treatment to an estimated 153,000 foreigners  who it believes are not entitled to by virtue of their illegality.

From September onwards, immigrants ‘non-registered or not authorized as residents in Spain’ will be left without a public health card, and will be forced to rely on medical treatment from charities and NGOs.  This legislation is part of a series of austerity-driven adjustments to the Spanish national health system, which includes new charges on medicines and drugs.

Within this context, there is a strong element of crowd-pleasing populism in the PP’s exclusion of  the country’s sin papeles (those without papers) from universal health benefits.

Before the crisis, many employers made use of the constant pool of legal and illegal immigrant workers who came to Spain to work in services, agriculture and the construction industry, or as maids and domestic servants in middle and upper class households.

Now Spain’s economy is crumbling by the day, and illegal immigrants are a  surplus population at the bottom layer of Spain’s tottering  pyramid – and an easy target for a government looking to balance its budget through whatever means it can find.

Even though the law has not yet come into force, there have already been some bleak examples of what these distinctions between legal and illegal can mean.  In Valencia, last week a Chinese sin papel named Ladi Fan was charged by a local hospital for a life-saving operation that she received last year.

Ms Fan was diagnosed with rectal cancer in December  and the subsequent operation successful removed the tumor.   But last week she received a bill for the very precise sum of 20.797, 39 euros from the regional government of Valencia for the treatment she received.

It would be interesting to know how the hospital reached such a precise calculation of how much Fan’s life was worth – since this is in fact what these mathematics are ultimately referring to.

Even more to the point, it would be interesting to know how the hospital concerned thought that an unemployed migrant without papers in a civil partnership with an unemployed Spanish waiter could pay such a sum.  Had it not been for her partner, who gave his own name and address and signed the papers enabling her treatment, she might not have received any treatment at all.

A local health centre has managed to register Fan so that she does not have to pay the 90 euros a week for an ileostomy bottle, even though she has no permit of resisdence.  In September, she could lose that too.

To its credit the Catalan health services have refused to implement this law, on the grounds of solidarity and public health.   But the implicit message in the new legislation is that the lives of illegal migrants are worth less than others, and that financial calculations have entirely taken place over elementary human considerations.

This philosophy is not unique to Spain.  In the UK in 2008 the Labour government deported the Ghanian woman Ama Sumani who was on lifesaving dialysis treatment, because she had overstayed her visa.  Sumani died soon afterwards. Last year, the Home Office came very close to deporting Rania Abdechakour, a five-year-old quadriplegic with cerebral palsy back to her native Algeria.

Now UKBA is currently seeking to deport Roseline Akhalu, a Nigerian student who overstayed her visa and is receiving lifesaving immunosuppresant drugs for kidney failure that are not available in Nigeria.

In countries where cuts are being inflicted on the whole population, decisions like these reflect a new determination to enforce the distinction between legal and illegal people, national citizens and foreigners, that is leading to a generalised race to the bottom.

Governments may think such decisions are a sign of  toughness and rigour, and they will always please those who regard immigrants – whether legal or not – as unworthy intruders, parasites and ‘ health tourists’.  But to deny medical treatment to people who need it because of their immigration status is another sign of how barbarous even supposedly civilised societies can become,  when crucial matters of life and death are reduced to how much things cost, and how much – or how little – some people’s lives are worth.