Doctor turns folk hero amid Granada’s healthcare conflict

Charismatic Spanish medic Jesús Candel mobilises thousands against hospital merger

Jesús Candel has been hoisted aloft and is sitting on the shoulders of two colleagues. He’s laughing as the huge crowd below chants his name. With his wraparound sunglasses, back-to-front cap and comedy red nose, he could be a compere, or children’s entertainer.

But Candel is deadly serious. This 40-year-old accident-and-emergency doctor from Granada in Spain is waging a tireless campaign against the local government's attempts to restructure his city's healthcare. Railing against what he sees as the administration's mismanagement, incompetence and lack of transparency, in a matter of months he has become an internet phenomenon and a folk-hero across the Andalucía region.

“Jesús Candel is the one who made all this possible, he’s the one who got everyone out on to the street to demand their rights,” said fellow campaigner Susana Sarrión, at the demonstration Candel led through the streets of Granada on January 15th. Tens of thousands of people took part, to express their opposition to the Socialist regional government’s merging of the city’s hospitals.

Candel’s meteoric rise started with a video he recorded with his children last summer, ridiculing the merger which, confusingly, has seen the services of two hospitals cut to the equivalent of one, but separated into two buildings, 13km apart.


Anti-austerity healthcare professionals

The video went viral and Candel became the figurehead of a movement against cuts and streamlining in the healthcare services in Granada and across the Andalucía region. Since then, his videos continue to highlight the system’s failings while mobilising thousands of people to take part in a series of mass demonstrations in Granada and other cities in southern Spain, involving the so-called Marea Blanca, or “white tide”: an organisation of anti-austerity healthcare professionals. He ends each recording with his trademark cry: “Yeaaahhhh!”

"There is money, but we don't know where it goes," Candel tells The Irish Times. "Healthcare has been politicised. It's managed by politicians and that's the big mistake. There is money for a good health service, but it's being misspent. What we in the sector, and ordinary people, are calling for is for the professionals to manage healthcare."

Candel even has an obscure superhero nickname – "Spiriman" – named after Spiribol, a ball game he invented for disadvantaged children who he helps via his own charity. With El Periódico newspaper calling him "the most popular man in Granada", Candel has become a thorn in the side of the Socialist premier of Andalucía, Susana Díaz.

Although the Andalucían government has suggested Candel is politically motivated, he has been careful to avoid being aligned with any party. But there are some signs his campaign is paying off.

In November, the Andalucían government appointed a new managing director of its Campus de la Salud hospital, Cristina López. A vascular surgeon, she would appear to adhere to Candel's calls for professional, rather than political, leadership. Speaking to The Irish Times, she is surprisingly frank about the merger's failings, listing waiting lists, emergencies and overall communication as problems in Granada's healthcare system.

“These are problems we need to sort out,” she says. “That’s why people are demonstrating, they feel that what has been done is not the correct thing.”

‘A city united’

However, she believes the campaigners are swimming against a global tide. “This is a worldwide movement of merging hospitals, this is nothing to do just with Granada or with Spain,” she says. “Obviously, we have seen what has been done in other places, like the UK and United States.”

None of which cuts any ice with Candel and his supporters. Many of them target López on social networks, which she says distorts what should be a cool-headed, technical debate. By contrast, Candel eulogises the likes of Twitter and Facebook, which have given him such a huge platform.

“We’re used to having politicians sell lies to us with these situations and the ordinary people staying quiet,” he says. “[But] it’s a wonderful thing to see a city united, fighting for this. It’s an example of what should happen in lots of cities across the world. What is happening here in Granada is unique.”

At the end of the demonstration, several healthcare professionals take to a stage in Granada’s Plaza del Campillo square and address the crowd. A particularly big cheer greets Candel as he takes the microphone and expertly handles his audience, sprinkling an impassioned speech with jokes.

Afterwards, he is besieged by admirers – men, women, children, the elderly – who want to grab his hand, hug him or take selfies.

It’s hard to believe he can maintain such popularity, or that, like the politicians he disdains, he won’t eventually somehow disappoint his followers. But for the moment, he really is the most popular man in the city.

“He wants the best for Granada and for it to have two complete hospitals,” says Carmen Alquelladas, a pensioner. “The politicians, the unions . . . none of them do that. There are lots of people doing this, but Jesús Candel is the figurehead – he’s a phenomenon.”