Much commentary on the pandemic has focused on the interventions of central states in the areas of public health and the economy. But what of the responses of municipal governments? Kate Shea Baird explains how Ada Colau’s administration in Barcelona has sought to meet the challenge of COVID in a way that tackles inequalities and promotes climate action.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been met by unprecedented state intervention around the world. We’ve seen lockdowns, travel bans, quarantines and state-funded furloughs instigated in an attempt to deal with both the virus and its economic consequences. In many countries, these interventions have been accompanied by the centralisation of decision-making at national level, often through the use of emergency powers.

But top-down measures can only take us so far in a health crisis that has exposed and deepened festering economic, gender and racial inequalities in Europe. In contrast to their remote, often out-of-touch national counterparts, local governments can target resources to where they are most needed and detect and respond to people’s priorities.

The case of Barcelona, governed by Barcelona En Comú under the mayoralty of former housing activist Ada Colau, is an example of how one the most progressive municipal governments in Europe is responding to the intersecting crises of COVID-19, economic recession and climate breakdown.

Health and economic justice

Barcelona has been hard-hit by the pandemic, in terms of both health and the economy. But this impact hasn’t been evenly distributed across the city: the poorest residents of Barcelona have been hardest hit by the coronavirus.  According to a study by the Hospital del Mar and IDIAPGol, infection rates in the working-class district of Nou Barris are 2.5 times those in the wealthiest district, Sarrià-Sant Gervasi. Structural sexism and racism have also played their hand in exposing different parts of the population. Women have been more likely to lose income and take on increased caring responsibilities than men, and made up 70% of social service users in Barcelona during lockdown. Women have also had to contend with an increased risk of gender violence; calls to Spain’s gender violence helpline rose by 60% in Spain during the first month of lockdown. For their part, immigrants are more likely to live in overcrowded, unsafe housing and work in low-paid sectors with temporary contracts, and those without legal status are ineligible for support from national social programmes.

Barcelona’s response has focused on ameliorating these class, gender and racial inequalities, with the city doubling spending on social services since March and announcing a 90 million emergency fund to deal with the social and economic impact of the pandemic.

One of the municipal government’s priorities has focused on guaranteeing the right to housing: the city set up 750 additional beds for the homeless during lockdown, as well as freezing rent payments for residents of public housing. Colau also reached a deal to mobilise 200 unused tourist apartments to house people in need of emergency housing, including those unable self-isolate in their own homes and women escaping abusive partners.Barcelona also continued with its policy of fining the owners of empty apartments, and expropriating them. In June, the city announced a case against the vulture fund Azora for failing to rent 20 of its properties, and in July it warned fourteen other companies that it would begin expropriation proceedings if they didn’t fill 194 apartments within the month.

To deal with the gendered impact of the pandemic, Barcelona has created a pilot municipal babysitting service in six low-income neighbourhoods to support women to work or study. The city has also announced 150,000 euros of funding for projects to tackle the feminization of poverty. Unusually for this kind of public funding, informal groups and individuals can present projects, as well as traditional NGOs, making it much more open and accessible to non-traditional providers who are rooted in local communities.

No-one is illegal

The situation of undocumented immigrants in Barcelona is particularly critical; before the pandemic, many scraped a living in the informal underbelly of the city’s tourist economy. Barcelona has co-led the ‘registration means rights’ (padró són drets) campaign, calling on all municipal governments to follow its lead in actively registering undocumented migrants as official residents. This policy enables people without papers in Barcelona to access a range of housing, health and education services that they would otherwise be denied.

Perhaps the only positive effect of COVID-19 on immigrants was the closure of all of Spain’s immigrant detention centres in May, something that Barcelona had long called for. In June, Colau joined the Mayor of Valencia, Joan Ribó in writing to the Spanish government and calling for the closure to be made permanent. They wrote that‘No-one is illegal and being a migrant is not a crime … These months of temporary closure have proven that these centres aren’t necessary to control migration.’

Greening the city

It’s estimated that CO2 emissions in Barcelona fell by 290,840 tonnes during lockdown, the level of reduction necessary if the city is to meet its goal of a 50% emissions reduction by 2030. The city council has taken advantage of the opportunity to accelerate existing policies to rewild the city, reduce the amount of public space dedicated to private vehicles, and extend cycling and walking infrastructure.

Barcelona is a relatively grey, concrete city; in 2017 it had an average of just 7m2 of green space per resident, a figure that fell to 1.85m2 in the central Eixample district. Over recent years, the city council has implemented an active rewilding policy, and lockdown gave the city’s incipient plant life the boost it needed to flourish like never before, with some of the city’s green spaces becoming virtually unrecognisable refuges from their concrete surroundings.

At the same time, Barcelona has used ‘tactical urbanism’ (provisional, low-cost interventions in public space) to pedestrianise 12km of public space and create 21km of new cycle lanes. These policies serve the dual purpose of facilitating COVID-safe, physically distanced travel during the health crisis, as well as supporting Colau’s long-term goal of reducing car use and carbon emissions.

Crucially, Barcelona’s green policies have a class perspective. At a time when many seek to juxtapose the climate and economic crises, Colau’s government sees the two as inextricable. A small, but illustrative, example is how Barcelona has negotiated the use of public space between pedestrians and bars and restaurants. In a context where the hospitality industry is struggling, and too often pedestrians are pitted against bar owners for the use of space in streets and squares, Colau gave bars and restaurants permission to put extra tables in lanes usually used by cars. In this way, she protected pedestrian space as well as the jobs in the hospitality sector.

Culture and care

Too many governments have treated care and cultural work as expendable during the COVID-19 crisis. This has not been the case in Barcelona. One of the first measures announced by the city council, way back in March, was a set of ten initiatives to support the city’s cultural sector. These included €1 million of special funding for grassroots cultural organizations such as small theatres, workshops and cultural cooperatives, another million for new books for public libraries, advance payments for cultural workers with existing contracts with city hall, and funding to support the sector to make theatres, bookshops, galleries, etc. COVID-secure. In July, the city announced a cultural voucher scheme, through which it would subsidise 25% of purchasers’ spending in local bookshops, theatres, concert halls and cinemas.

The city has also taken a holistic, community-based approach to health and wellbeing. Understanding that the health impact of COVID goes way beyond the virus itself, Barcelona has invested €1.5 million in dealing with the mental health impact of COVID and lockdown on the population, including a new telephone helpline for those needing emotional support. The city council has also led projects to bring citizens together online to process the experience of the pandemic emotionally and creatively, including the ‘dear diary’ initiative for children and ‘Barcelona remembers’, an online space for residents to share memories and experiences, as well as a crowdsourced digital historical archive, of documents, photos and videos.

In addition, Barcelona has identified the importance of strengthening grassroots community initiatives beyond city hall. Around the world, people have been looking out for one another through local mutual aid networks, social movements and neighbourhood organisations, and in Barcelona the city council has turned 30 municipal buildings into community hubs, providing local groups with storage and meeting spaces, PPE, videoconferencing and mobile technology, printing facilities, transport services and more.

The fight for municipal autonomy

Of course, all of this socially oriented municipal action comes at a cost. Barcelona is facing a €300 million budget deficit, due to falling tax revenues and increased social spending in the wake of the pandemic. This, in a context where post-2008 austerity legislation in Spain doesn’t allow local governments to keep any savings they make, let alone to run a deficit. After months calling on the Spanish Prime Minister to support local finances to no avail, Colau is leading a municipal rebellion, and refusing to hand over Barcelona’s 2019 budget surplus of €161 million to the central government.

For too long, local governments in Spain have been patronised and undermined by arrogant central governments of all colours. Yet, historically, municipalities have been at the vanguard of driving social, economic and cultural progress in the country. It’s no coincidence that the Second Republic was declared after republican forces swept to power in local elections in 1931. If the coalition government between the Socialist Party and Podemos is to survive and thrive, it must recognise municipalities as an indispensable ally in the construction of a post-COVID Spain, and finance them accordingly.

by Kate Shea Baird

Originally published on 27 August 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Kate Shea Baird works as an advisor to the political coalition En Comú Guanyem at Barcelona’s regional government.  Some of Kate’s writings on radical municipalism can be found at her blog site: Twitter: @KateSB.