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Madrid inaugurates controversial pandemic hospital

Critics say $120 million should have been used instead to address doctor, nurse shortages

Alyssa McMurtry   | 01.12.2020
Madrid inaugurates controversial pandemic hospital

OVIEDO, Spain 

Spain’s top conservative politicians inaugurated the Isabel Zenda pandemic hospital in Madrid on Tuesday as more than 100 health care workers protested outside.

“This will be a breath of fresh air for our healthcare workers,” said the project’s mastermind, Madrid Premier Isabel Diaz Ayuso. “From today, Madrid and all of Spain has a new world-class hospital.”

The hospital cost €100 million ($120 million) to build – more than double the original budget. Constructed in just over three months near Spain’s largest airport, it will eventually have more than 1,000 beds and 48 intensive care units (ICUs).

It is 80,000 square meters (262,000 square feet) – around the size of Buckingham Palace. It intends to relieve pressure on the region’s hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic and prepare Madrid for future public health emergencies.

On the inside, it has striking similarities to a makeshift hospital built during the first wave of the pandemic in Madrid’s largest convention center. The beds are in the open and patients do not have individual rooms.

Ayuso hailed the hospital, equipped with the latest technology, as “pioneering” and “unprecedented in Europe,” but critics question whether it was worth the hefty price tag.

“Permanent pandemic hospitals don’t exist. The world will be scratching its head. Pandemic hospitals are temporary, they can be amplified and taken down because pandemics aren’t predictable, their characteristics change and they should be minimized,” Alberto Infante, a public health professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, told Spanish broadcaster Cadena Ser. “We need to prevent a third wave, not build a hospital to fill up.”

Around 1,817 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in Madrid, with 325 in the ICU. After a major surge in October led to new restrictions, the number of new infections in Madrid has fallen dramatically.

Doctors and nurses unions were behind protests outside the inaugural event, which was attended by the conservative Mayor of Madrid and Popular Party leader Pablo Casado. Members of the central government declined the invitation.

Signs read “more staff, fewer bricks,” “hospital for politicians,” and “enough precarious working conditions.”

Demonstrators slammed the hospital as a vanity project that only exacerbates the biggest flaw in Madrid’s public health sector: a shortage of doctors and nurses.

In recent months, doctors, nurses, medical residents and paramedics have staged strikes in Madrid decrying temporary contracts, low pay, staff shortages and a lack of resources for tracking and tracing to prevent the spread of the virus.

The nursing union SATSE said the hospital would only take health care workers away from established hospitals, which cannot afford to lose staff as they try to catch up on treatments that were delayed during the peak of the first and second waves of the pandemic.

So far, just 111 health care workers have signed up to work at the hospital, though media reports said it needs 669 workers to begin operations.

Patients will not be able to enter the new facility until next week, and initially, only 240 regular beds and the ICUs will receive patients.

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