Spanish soldiers deployed to help fight the new coronavirus outbreak have found elderly patients abandoned, and sometimes dead, at retirement homes, as an ice rink inside a Madrid shopping mall was turned into a temporary morgue to cope with a surge in cases.
The army has been charged with helping to disinfect retirement homes in Spain, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic. Dozens of deaths from COVID-19 have been recorded at facilities across the country.
"We are going to be strict and inflexible when dealing with the way old people are treated in these residences," Defence Minister Margarita Robles said in an interview with private television channel Telecinco.
"The army, during certain visits, found some old people completely abandoned, sometimes even dead in their beds," she added.
An investigation has been launched, the general prosecutor announced.
The coronavirus death toll in Spain surged to 2,182 on Monday after 462 people died within 24 hours, according to health ministry figures.
Meanwhile, the ice rink at the Palacio de Hielo, or Ice Palace, shopping centre in Madrid was turned into a temporary morgue to deal with a surge in deaths in the capital, a spokeswoman for Madrid city hall told AFP.
Earlier, the city hall said the city's 14 public cemeteries would stop accepting more bodies because staff there did not have adequate protective gear.
The improvised morgue would start to be used "in the coming hours," the regional government of Madrid said.
"This is a temporary and exceptional measure which aims to mitigate the pain of the family members of the victims and the situation hospitals in Madrid are facing."
A nearby congress center has been converted into a field hospital for coronavirus patients that will have a total of 5,500 beds.
The elderly are especially vulnerable in the global pandemic and officials around the world are increasingly calling for extreme measures to safeguard them.
Retirement homes are "an absolute priority for the government", Health Minister Salvador Illa told a press conference.
"We will exercise the most intensive monitoring of these centers."
Under coronavirus protocols, health workers have been instructed to leave bodies in place in suspected COVID-19 deaths until the arrival of a doctor. But given the upsurge in deaths the delay can be lengthy.
Photo: The ice rink at the Palacio de Hielo, or Ice Palace, shopping center in Madrid
AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU