Interview with Fernando Flores, editor of the report by the Citizens’ Commission for the Truth in Madrid’s Residences.

By Gorka Castillo/ctxt

Fernando Flores (Valencia, 1968) holds a diploma in Advanced Defense Studies from the Centro Superior de Estudios de la Defensa Nacional (Ceseden) and a degree in Constitutional Law, Political Science, and International Relations from the Spanish Centre for Constitutional Studies. He is currently a member of the Human Rights Institute of the Law Faculty of the University of Valencia, and last year he was a member of the Citizens’ Commission for the Truth about the Residences of Madrid, along with six other experts, chaired by the retired judge of the Supreme Court, José Antonio Martín Pallín. Flores was the main author of the damning report presented last week in response to a commission by Marea de Residencias and Verdad y Justicia to shed light on the deaths of 7,291 people in appalling conditions in Madrid’s retirement homes during the first two months of the pandemic.

A horrific episode that, in her opinion, will haunt Isabel Díaz Ayuso for a long time to come. The accusations made by dozens of victims have not ceased in these four years, despite the resistance of the President of Madrid to reveal the reasons for her decisions. But the perseverance of the relatives is a direct challenge to the silence imposed by a hitherto untouchable leader. Flores unreservedly acknowledges the errors and political responsibility of the Madrid executive for the extremely high mortality rate registered in the homes during those dates. The 148-page report reveals not only heartbreaking facts, with testimonies and studies documented by specialists, “but also the discrimination with which the regional government acted in referring sick elderly people to hospitals. These people were segregated according to where they lived and their mobility,” says the study’s editor.

One of the lessons of this research is its scrupulous fidelity to the account of enormous events. Supported by data from official sources, such as the Community of Madrid itself or the Public Prosecutor’s Office, it does not lose sight of the context with investigative articles or the feelings that the survivors contributed during the face-to-face sessions that the Citizens’ Commission for the Truth held on 15 and 16 September. It dismantles the institutional version that the deaths in the dormitories were as unexpected as they were inevitable. “It focuses on the facts. For example, it is a fact that the courts issued a precautionary order to medicate the homes and another fact that they were not medicated, despite what some interested voices say. These are facts based on data, based on testimonies, based on reports documented by epidemiologists and lawyers.

They were not medicalized, nor were they referred to hospitals by patients without private insurance. This decision had serious consequences. First, it deprived many residents of their right to health protection and, in many cases, their right to life,” Flores adds.

For this reason, it is instructive, and even pathetic, to re-read the story of how, at the height of the spread of the virus, on 12 March 2020, the Madrid government published an account of a “historic” anti-pandemic plan consisting of the creation of a unified command aimed at coordinating the 72 public and private hospitals and medicalizing the 475 centers for the elderly in the region. Reality showed that this was a toast to the morning sun. The day after the announcement, the Monte Hermoso Home for the Elderly made a desperate appeal for help to the Regional Ministry of Health and another to the Díaz Ayuso Presidency, but no one replied. Five days later, it emerged that twenty people from the center had died without receiving any treatment other than what the home could improvise in a precarious situation with sick staff. The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation, the case was brought before a court and finally closed, but to this day no one has been held accountable and no information has been given to the families as to why the regional administration was unable to act on the alarm that the home had raised that day in March. “Fundamental rights have been violated, such as the right to life itself, to family privacy, to physical and psychological integrity. Like the right to health and the right to know what happened to thousands of people who were in a particularly vulnerable situation.

We must demand the truth because the decision to prevent them from leaving their homes is a violation of Article 2 of the European Committee of Human Rights, which speaks of the positive obligation of states to act with extraordinary diligence in these cases. We are not inventing anything with our demands,” adds Flores.

For this reason, the Commission’s report deals with the transfer of clinical resources, doctors, and nurses, ordered by the Madrid government when it opened a field hospital in Ifema, and demolishes the argument used by Díaz Ayuso to justify his management – “when an elderly person with covid was seriously ill, there was nowhere to save them”. For the victims, it was like rubbing salt in their open wounds. The professor from the University of Valencia cannot hide his irritation at such rudeness: “Neither Ayuso, nor his government, nor anyone else has the right to say when or how someone dies. To say that is obscene. Secondly, why out of a hundred patients in the nursing homes, 65 did not die. And then there was the ‘miracle’ hospital in Ifema, which was mainly dedicated to treating people with a mild prognosis of COVID-19, and which only took in 23 residents, when everyone knew what was happening in the old people’s homes, the people who were dying and how they were dying. No health care, because a thousand primary care workers were eventually absorbed by Ifema. With the doors locked from the outside, no palliative care, and a thousand empty beds in private hospitals. I do not know if there is a legal responsibility in all this, but yes, there is a political responsibility. There may not be a criminal offense, there may not be an offense. It will have to be seen because it is complicated, but what is clear is that Ayuso had a responsibility in these decisions”.

“It has to be said out loud: you, Madam President, are responsible for what happened in the Madrid residences during the pandemic”.

Fernando Flores, an academic trained at the Human Rights Institute of the University of Valencia, also believes that the work carried out by the Madrid Public Prosecutor has not contributed to clarifying a case of such magnitude with the transparency, rigor, and impartiality it deserves. According to the editor of the Truth Commission’s report, the justification in her annual report that she did not call relatives to testify to avoid their re-victimization is a major flaw in the whole process. “The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights shows that when there is evidence of a serious or very serious violation of rights, the victims should always be heard,” he says.

Flores believes that the work of the Citizens’ Commission for Truth provides answers to a number of questions that relatives, workers and many citizens continue to ask about what happened in the Madrid flats. Why did twice as many people die in the Madrid residences than in other autonomous communities? Why did the regional government not comply with the precautionary measure ordered by the High Court of Justice to provide these centers with medical care at the beginning of the pandemic? For the relatives of the victims, speaking and being listened to is a catharsis for the traumatic experience they have lived through, even if it does not lead to a conviction or whether they are right or not. The administration acts with arbitrary discretion towards their memory, their pain, and their guilt. How can the President of Madrid say that the desire to know the truth, expressed by Marea de Residencias and Verdad y Justicia, is to take advantage of the victims when they are the victims,” she reflects.

For Flores, the recently presented study is a “critical and honest examination of the care and health system” that should not fall on deaf ears. In its final recommendations, it urges the public authorities to take action on the outstanding issues, such as promoting an effective and thorough investigation to establish the truth, reopening the commission of inquiry into the pandemic that was wrongly closed by the Madrid Assembly, initiating a radical change in the approach to the care model, urgently improving the provision of the public health system and, finally, designing a public policy against ageism. “We live in a society that is not aware that older or disabled people are discriminated against as if they had already been expelled. They are treated as if their lives are less valuable than those of others. For this reason, he does not hesitate to call for an “extraordinary and revolutionary” cultural change in the model of care management. And for the study’s lead author, there is only one way to achieve this. “Increase budgets and put people at the center of political and cultural action,” he says. Perhaps this is the only way to finally understand “that we all have the same value at the end of life,” concludes Fernando Flores.