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Spain's decision is a step in the right direction, and confirms that universal healthcare can be achieved only within a public health system; meanwhile in the UK, private hospital beds will be rented by the British government for £300 a day.

The Spanish Ministry of Health has announced that the government is putting all private hospitals in the country under state control indefinitely, to combat the spread of COVID-19 infections. On 16 March, there were 9,191 confirmed cases in the country with 309 deaths linked to the outbreak.

This makes Spain, which declared a COVID-19 state of emergency on 14 March, the third most affected country outside China. The government’s decision is a step in the right direction, and confirms that universal healthcare can be achieved only within a public health system.

Crisis situations help reveal deeper realities to societies. Universal public healthcare is essential not only to curb outbreaks, but also to ensure crisis preparedness and full realisation of the right to health.

This pandemic must serve as a wake-up call to Spain and governments all over the world on the crucial need to roll back a decades-long history of privatisation and commodification of health.

The Spanish healthcare system has witnessed several waves of privatisation since the mid-1980s. A series of laws and policies promoting PPPs and “new public management” of the public health system were introduced in the 1990s. This was part of the global neoliberal attacks through which the profit interests of business were lauded over the human interests of people.

In the aftermath of the 2007-2009 global recession and EU fiscal crisis, the commercialisation and marketisation of health across Europe, and particularly in Spain and other countries most affected by the fiscal crisis, took a turn for the worse.

Governments became determined to slash budgets at any cost. Public healthcare has been most hard hit by the consequential austerity measures. Thousands of jobs were lost and public healthcare workers’ salaries frozen, while private healthcare delivery was promoted.

The Spanish government attempted to push through the largest phase of healthcare privatisation in the country’s history despite widespread opposition, including strikes and protest marches by healthcare workers and communities, seven years ago.

But the people prevailed with unwavering political and legal action, forcing the government to stop further privatisation in the health and social care sector. Requisition of the private health sector at this grim hour validates the argument of health workers in Spain and PSI for universal public health care.

Beds for profit in the UK

Meanwhile, UK unions including GMB, a PSI affiliate, say the British National Health Service (NHS) now has to "deal with a national health emergency despite being under strain from years of privatisation and cuts".

To address this, British trade unions demanded that the government make the 8,000 beds in at least 570 private hospitals in the country available for the upsurge in COVID-19 cases.

Many of the beds were “lying empty waiting for the wealthy to fall ill, while people are left in dying in hospitals for the want of a bed”. The government’s response has been to rent these beds at the cost of £2.4m per day (that’s £300 per bed per day)! This is taxpayers’ money that should be used for fighting the outbreak.

Now is not the time to enrich privateers; all hands should be on deck to fight the pandemic!

The British government and governments all over the world should draw a lesson from Spain’s decision to nationalise private hospitals, and the demonstrated failure of neoliberal policies in healthcare and generally.

Workers and the people will demand similar actions which put people before profit to effectively stop the spread of the new coronavirus outbreak in its tracks. Our health is not for sale.

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