Hong Kong/China (23/5). Catalonia – an autonomous region of Spain – had reported almost 9,000 coronavirus deaths by April 22. Despite the Catalan Department of Health’s new calculation method, which incorporates deaths outside of hospitals, these figures are unlikely to account for the huge number of unverified instances of people found dead in their own beds in places like nursing homes, as well as the countless others infected who lack access to tests. The outbreak is now out of control.
In fact, when there were only 509 confirmed cases and six deaths in Catalonia, the (normally) autonomous regional government was already asking for the central government’s permission to close the borders of Catalonia to prevent the spread of the virus.
At first, they received no answer. But the President of the Catalan-speaking region Quim Torra was confident enough to assume the confinement of the autonomous community would go ahead: “The Mossos d’Esquadra [Catalan police force] has everything ready to confine Catalonia,” Torra announced, making clear that they would not act “in a unilateral manner” and would wait for the central government’s nod.
“The virus does not respond to borders or territories,” explained Pedro Sánchez, prime minister of Spain. Interestingly, his statement came just hours after he approved the border closures of another Spanish autonomous community – the Balearic Islands.
The decision is not surprising to any outsider who has kept an eye on Catalan affairs. Only months before, Sánchez had personally travelled to Catalonia to visit riot police injured during the pro-independence demonstrations.
The prime minister was forced to enter and exit through side entrances of the hospital because he was not welcomed by the Catalan Department of Health, nor by the health centre’s management – who, in fact, condemned the political nature of his visit. Sanchez was instead greeted then chased out by hospital staff, who booed him with protest slogans.
But the refusal of the Catalan president’s plea for a border closure came as a shock to many locals, who have become increasingly infuriated with the central government. In the same month, a state of emergency was declared throughout Spain, giving Sánchez powers that override local authority in all 17 autonomous communities.
This was called “the second 155” by Catalans, a phrase which referred to Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, invoked during the unrest at the end of last year, which temporarily gave the Spanish government direct rule over the usually autonomous region. But the impact of losing autonomy for the second time seemed to be felt even more deeply.
With the declaration of a state of emergency, the Spanish prime minister has taken control of industries, especially the health sector. The Civil Guard and the military have also been invested with special authority for the requisition and redistribution of essential medical supplies, and these armed bodies are making sure Madrid gets first dibs.
Within a week of Madrid’s decision to centralise the control and distribution of all health equipment in Spain, reports surfaced of thousands of masks, sent from another autonomous community to one of Catalonia’s many epicentres, being intercepted by armed forces and diverted to Madrid.
After the Spanish government admitted that the Civil Guard had redistributed medical supplies, desperate Catalan medical workers posted videos where they appeared to be wearing no gowns in hospitals and pleading for help.
The last available data in March indicated that hundreds of thousands of masks, as well as thousands of gloves and goggles had been confiscated by the Central Government
If the borders had been closed as requested by the local autonomous government, or if essential medical supplies had not been diverted to Spain’s capital, how many lives would have been saved in Catalonia? No one will ever know. But countless Catalans who have lost their loved ones would surely have loved the chance to find out.
Catalonia’s recent experiences since the second half of last year almost mirrored ours in Hong Kong. The violent crackdown on protesters, the imprisonment of political opposition leaders, the inability to close borders despite popular demand, and the lack of access to medical supplies, partly due to resources being channelled away from a normally self-governing region in a non-transparent manner. It all sounds too familiar to Hongkongers.
Catalonia’s tragic fate should serve as a warning for Hong Kong: all this could happen, even to a completely autonomous and self-governing nation, with its own democratically elected president and parliament, existing within a greater country which is also democratic – a scenario Hongkongers could only dream of.
Many in Hong Kong fight for straightforward representative democracy, coupled with a greater degree of autonomy. But this is far from enough. Catalonia’s lesson to Hong Kong is that independence is truly the only way out.
Our language is deemed a mere dialect. Our children grow up singing a national anthem which is not in their mother tongue. Our referendums are always ruled invalid. Our peaceful protesters are assaulted and imprisoned. A president who does not even speak our language can order an interpretation of the constitution regarding our local affairs, and the results always coincide with their agenda, not our welfare. Our lives are forever at the mercy of the sovereign power. Catalonia is no different, with or without democracy.
Even the greatest degree of autonomy can be taken away at the whim of the sovereign nation. It is often done in moments of crisis, including non-political ones like the coronavirus, and when the interest of the smaller nation clashes with that of the sovereign state. Yet these are the times when we need our autonomy the most.
The centralisation of power and large governments always tends to lead to corruption, as well as the inability to respond to unique regional needs. The only beneficiaries are capital cities where the centralised power lies, such as Beijing and Madrid.
Hong Kong’s seven months of political struggle lent a lot of new techniques to the Catalan independence movement. Now we must also learn lessons from their recent misfortunes.
We must never stop fighting until we gain full independence, even if one day, we are granted universal suffrage, and even if China eventually becomes democratic. Our language, our culture, and our very lives are at stake. Independence is our only hope.