The country of the Morticoles

Coronavirus pandemic in Spain: is it a fiction story or a real dystopia?

Agustín Muñoz-Sanz
7 min readJul 12, 2020


“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

The Peter Principle (Pan Books, 1970).

Mr. Alberto Chicote is a famous Spanish chef known for his public complaints about some filthy restaurants. Months ago, he launched a new television program. He presented a series of reports on the private channel La Sexta TV, giving a little twist to his previous visual documents. In the latest stories, he put the focus of his complaints on some nursing homes that housed older adults. In each episode, at least one thing was evident to the viewers: the sad abandonment of the elderly. And what happened? Nothing.

The cooker Mr. Alberto Chicote, before recording a chapter of his TV program. Photo: El Norte

Older people are, for the most part, decent human beings who have been ‘imprisoned’ in deplorable places by the circumstances of life, with no previous crime or court sentence. It is fair to say that not all homes are horrible places, nor are all managers and workers incompetent. But the shelters shown by the scout cook of kitchens are more than enough to illustrate the management disaster hidden from society. So what happened next? Tick, tick, tick, tick. Nothing, once again.

Older people are, for the most part, decent human beings who have been ‘imprisoned’ in deplorable places by the circumstances of life.

The blame, my friend, is not blowing in the wind.

Shortly after broadcasting the dreadful spectacle, the violated biographies appeared in the media and then climbed into the ring of Spanish politics. The reason is as simple as expected: the high risk of illness and death. The elderly are the target of chronic diseases and also are very vulnerable to various infections. Among others, they are easy prey for the current pandemic.

Seniors are very vulnerable to a lot of infectious diseases.

The elderly have contributed to the pandemic by bringing in a considerable number of sick and dead people. We overlook the figures here because there is no way of knowing the numerical reality. Perhaps this is due to the magic power of many politicians and health administrators when it comes to providing general information on the subject.

The ethical essence hidden in the statistical fog is like the garbage, cockroaches, and moldy oxides from the dirty ovens found by Inspector Chicote. In my opinion, society (perhaps you, and myself, surely) has not responded well to this extraordinary challenge. The families, in not a few cases, have been absent. The political leaders were and are worried about their stupid and sterile party struggles.

Cockfights and scapegoats.

I wonder if there are no managers or politicians responsible for what happened, at least from a moral point of view. I am afraid that the dominant attitude in the majority is that the culprits of the disaster are the opposites, the politicians sitting in the seats of the adversaries. But, be that as it may, there is hope for all of them, the ones who keep the cockfights going.

— Ladies and gentlemen, who has a scapegoat to solve the situation?

Cockfight (Mosaic from Pompeii. Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale). Photo: Ilya Shuryigin.

If the elderly got sick or died, the virus is to blame. But there was a useful reason to avoid the guilt of fighting cocks: the answer to the problem depends — they decided — on the medical obligation to provide specialized care to elderly patients. And, if there is not enough personal equipment, or the necessary beds, or safe means of professional protection, we should not worry, they thought. Because we can always resort to a scapegoat. That’s what scapegoats are for: The fighting cocks use them to atone for their faults in the conscience of others.

‘The best healthcare in the world’, is a systematic statement on the lips of politicians. All at once! Until someone, a citizen, is confronted with the harsh reality.

— When will my sick father get a hospital bed, doctor?

— I’m sorry, madam. There’s no room. We’re overbooked. How old do you say your dad is?

In other words, if the elderly are infected, and there’s no room in the hospitals, someone (a fighting cock) will say, ‘Houston, we (they) have a problem’. It’s like they’ll say:

— Let’s leave it to the specialists to face an ethical question: to decide who has the right (and the luck) to receive proper treatment with the means available! Let the atoning physicians decide!

— Please, ma’am: can you show me your father’s ID?

History will judge them. Because the underlying problem is: Where were the health administrators before the viral tsunami? And what have they done in their management during the previous years? Were they distracted by reading The Peter Principle?

Graphical diagram of Peter’s principle. Photo: Publica o Perece.

Leon Daudet was a writer that could be a doctor.

Leon Daudet, son of the famous French writer Alphonse Daudet, was going to be a doctor. He studied at the Salpêtrière in Paris as a disciple of the prestigious neuro — pathologist and academic professor Charcot. Daudet junior suffered a disenchantment with medicine and lost his vocation. However, the literary muses did not abandon him: he wrote a strange novel of more than three hundred and fifty pages: Les Morticoles (Morticoles is a French neologism). The Lancet medical journal reviewed this dystopian fiction in 1884 (The Lancet, 1894;144:1360).

Foto: Leon Daudet (Wikipedia)

The strange country of Morticoles.

Daudet’s story is about the experiences of Felix Canelon, a young navigator in search of adventure. Felix was like a new French nineteenth-century Ulysses. As he deviated from his route, he stumbled upon the country of the Morticoles (in French, Le pays des Morticoles), inhabited by extraordinary people who worshiped death. A country subjected to the relentless dictatorship of doctors, the oligarchy who dominated all facets of the society (rich and poor) occupying and controlling all social levels of the country’s life (academy, parliament, Diet, and the Justice).

As he deviated from his route, he stumbled upon the country of the Morticoles (in French, Le pays des Morticoles), inhabited by extraordinary people who worshiped death.

After passing a mandatory quarantine in his unfortunate ship, Canelon got to know the Hospital of the Typhus, where he learned the strange customs of the Morticoles. A great paradox — perhaps a literary joke of Daudet — is that The Morticoles forced him (Canelon) to study medicine!

Death followers tolerated and supported the suicide of criminals in the so-called ‘suicide’s rooms’. The methods differed, depending on the circumstances: the most popular was the use of chloroform, a comfortable, clean, and very effective way to kill people in a matter of minutes (but not inhaling bleach!).

— We have a bed for your daddy, madam — a doctor on duty from the country of the Morticoles would have said to the dame.

Spain should not be a strange country.

In Spain, a great country, there are excellent professionals (not just medical doctors) ill-treated for decades by an outdated and moldy management system. An old regime infested by Kafkian bureaucrats that should not remain in force in the ‘new normality’, as Prime Minister Mr. Pedro Sánchez often says.

The truth is that Spain needs a profound ideological and structural removal from the entire health system. The country waits for a significant shake-up of its national health care organization from top to bottom. For example, by unifying political decisions when there are substantial challenges. Unity in the face of real threats. A general agreement in strengthening the national health system. It is necessary to pamper health workers.

The truth is that Spain needs a profound ideological and structural removal from the entire health system.

We live in a world open, global. Microbes, as all the planetary problems, do not have frontiers that divide big countries or little territories. They are microbes without borders. The laudable administrative decentralization of health management cannot convert into an assembly of seventeen independent Taifa kingdoms (Autonomous regions). Or, even worse, into ideologically opposed platforms, an alibi used to support or attack, depending on party interests, the central power — a national competition of cockfights.

Here we have buried the motto of the Francoist Spain: ‘One, great and free’. Now we live in a country dispersed, atomized, and libertarian. Both postures do not help to stimulate a healthy coexistence.

The Spanish health workers are not inhabitants of the country of the Morticoles, nor are they professionals chained to the will and whim of those who run the kingdom (sanitary) of infamy.

Note: This is a modest literary homage to older died by Covid-19, and also to Spanish health care workers. On the day (July 16, 2020) that Spain pays formally tribute to all the dead persons by Covid-19.



Agustín Muñoz-Sanz

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).