Voices: An American in Madrid living through the coronavirus pandemic abroad
Thursday was a tipping point. It felt that way when I woke that morning. United States President Donald Trump spoke to the US on Wednesday from the Oval Office to explain the US government’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. On the list of measures was a ban on travelers from Europe’s Schengen Area.
I learned of the travel ban a few hours later after waking up in my apartment in Madrid, Spain (inside the Schengen). In less than a month, my girlfriend, Helen, and I were set to travel to the US. It would be my first time in my home country since the summer of 2017, and her first time meeting most of my family. With the president’s announcement, though, plans were suddenly uncertain.
As an American citizen, I am permitted to travel to the US. Helen, however, is British and has lived in Spain for 11 years. There is no reason to hope she would be granted an exception.
It’s Thursday morning, and everything is up in the air.
Spain amidst COVID-19
Earlier in the week, the Spanish government designated three regions of the country – Madrid, La Rioja, and the Basque Country – as transmission hubs for COVID-19. Schools were required to close in those regions for two weeks, starting March 11.
In Madrid, that directly affected my friends who are part of the sizeable “expatriate,” or expat, community. They are teachers and auxiliaries. The program of “Auxiliares de Conversacion,” which literally means “conversation assistants,” places thousands of native English speakers in elementary and secondary classrooms around the country.
We are among the many Americans, Canadians, Britons and more who came to Spain to teach English as a second language. There is a considerable market here for English speakers, as Spanish people are eager to learn the language.
With concerns about COVID-19 intensifying, the expats in Madrid were adapting to their changing situations.
“It’s been very chaotic since no one really has a clear understanding about what’s going on,” explained James, a friend who works at an English academy. Shortly after the original announcement of school closures, he learned the language academies were not required to close, so his situation remained uncertain for days. Eventually, like most businesses in Madrid, his school closed.
My friends told me they’ve been in contact with people back home. Both Casey, originally from Minnesota, and Calla, from Kentucky, said they had spoken with family back home about the situation both here and in the US.
“I think we’re all at about the same level of concern,” Casey said of her and her parents. “I’d give that about a six out of 10. I feel much safer being in Spain than if I were back in the states because one, the healthcare system here is very good and two, with the amount of Americans that don’t have access to proper medical care and treatment, I believe things are going to be much worse in the United States than here.”
They all expressed a desire to keep living life as normally as possible, but acknowledged that might be easier said than done.
“I would prefer to be out as I normally would,” Calla explained, “than to complete self-quarantine until it’s totally necessary.”
In less than 48 hours, it would no longer be a choice.
The shelves run bare
Across social media, photos and videos of empty grocery aisle shelves have become the norm. Toilet paper appears to be in short supply in many countries, and Spain was no exception.
On Tuesday, a day after the school closures were announced, I went to Carrefour, my local grocery store. I had been planning on going in the afternoon for my weekly supplies anyway, but I opted for the morning that day just in case. The store was a little busier than usual, but I don’t normally shop at that hour, so I had no point of reference. The shelves were stocked.
Two days later, on the Thursday morning after the travel ban was announced, Helen and I decided it would be prudent to buy a little more, just to be safe.
Her place of work, a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Academy was not required by the government to close, but they were choosing to do so after Friday to be cautious.
She and I would be working from home for the next two weeks. I work as an English teacher a few hours a week, but most of my income comes from freelance writing and editing. For that reason, I work from home every day, but this would be a change of pace for her.
When I arrived at the Carrefour Thursday morning, it was a different scene. The aisles were more crowded and the shelves were emptying. The toilet paper was all gone, though hand soap was still available. Fresh fruits and vegetables were plentiful, but the aisle of tinned goods was mostly depleted.
The urge to stock one’s shelves in the midst of a pandemic is both human nature and likely unnecessary. I say this to myself as I fill my cart, knowing I am part of the problem.
Better safe than sorry, though. On Thursday, that had become the entire world’s motto.
Chinese in Spain
A darker side of the COVID-19 outbreak in Madrid has been the racial prejudice on display. In my “barrio,” or neighborhood, the Chinese-owned businesses have all closed their doors for the time being.
These alimentaciónes and bazaars are corner shops that offer food, household goods, and even clothing and bedding. More than anything else, they offer convenience; unlike most Spanish-owned stores, they don’t close for the midday siesta. Among the Spanish, these stores are known as “chinos,” which is Spanish for “Chinese.”
Some who responded to the store closures on social media were relieved – even gleeful. In a Facebook group for residents of my “barrio,” commentators expressed the hope that the stores would stay closed.
A post from Tuesday read: “Mañana día 11 miércoles, cierran todos los chinos,” which means “Tomorrow, Wednesday the 11th, all Chinese stores are closed.”
Beneath that post, someone had responded, “Let’s see if from now on, we stop buying from them and go to those of our own; it’s not racism; it’s looking after our own” (translated from Spanish).
Under another post that included an article about the Chinese shops closing, someone wrote, “They should close forever” (translated from Spanish).
Helen, whose decade-plus years in the country have attuned her to the prejudices that exist here, explained how she viewed the posts.
“I’ve always known the Spanish have had a suspicion-based racism towards the Chinese,” she said, “but have been sickened by their attitude towards them in the midst of the COVID-19 situation. It is far more than misplaced fear that Chinese people may bring the virus into their lives, but rather a more sinister glee in the idea that Chinese people will, as a result, be unsuccessful in Spain.”
Estado de Alarma
Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Friday afternoon declared a 15-day “estado de alarma,” or state of alarm. This declaration, the first since 2010, centralizes power in the federal government and allows that government to limit the movement of people nationally. It also permits the government to temporarily take over industries, if deemed necessary.
I learned about the impending state of alarm as I traveled by Metro to my weekly Spanish class (after two-and-a-half years in the country, my Spanish level remains poor). The news came via a text from Helen, who advised that I turn around and head back home. News of the declaration had leaked early and her office was preparing to close.
The state of alarm came on the same day Madrid ordered all restaurants and bars to close. The residents of the city, known as Madrileños, weren’t yet being quarantined, but the government was taking measures to ensure we didn’t have reasons to be outside, either.
The calm before the storm
On Saturday afternoon, Helen and I walked about our “barrio” to see if it felt deserted, or if, as we assumed, people were going about their lives as normal. Our assumptions had been correct. While the cafés and restaurants were closed, as were most of the stores, the sidewalks were still active.
We walked down to the walkway that runs alongside the Manzanares River to find it bustling with runners and couples out for strolls, like most Saturdays. People appeared mostly unbothered by the situation. Yet, the emptying store shelves suggested that underneath the calm, uncertainty was putting people on edge.
We returned from our walk, made lunch, and drank beers on our balcony. I received a message from my mother; Helen communicated with friends in Ireland and Vietnam, all of them affected by COVID-19. We all shared the same sense of uncertainty about what came next.
A global pandemic undermines the very idea of national borders.
Spain enters the quarantine
Then came Saturday night. Helen and I watched as Sánchez addressed the nation for the second time in two days. Helen, whose Spanish is much better than my own, translated as he spoke.
Somberly, over nearly an hour, Sánchez explained that public activities across the nation – except for buying food, going to work, and attending church services – were temporarily banned in an effort to halt the virus’ spread. The army and police would be out to enforce the quarantine, which would also forbid people from traveling in groups of two or more. The quarantine was set to begin Monday.
Sánchez acknowledged the financial hardship these actions would cost, both for individuals and businesses. He also attempted to assure the country’s disparate regions, which often harbor suspicions about the central government, that this was not a political overreaction or a power grab.
The prime minister referenced the American term “fake news" in order to push back on accusations that the COVID-19 pandemic was made up.
When the address to the nation was over, Helen and I sat in our living room, both of us on our phones as the barrage of news stories about the pandemic continued to pour in. We had plans to watch a movie, but it was hard to focus on anything else.
Then, a few minutes after Sánchez concluded his address, we heard applause emanating from dozens of balconies around our apartment complex. We joined in.
Over a few hours, across social media and WhatsApp groups, a spontaneous idea had spread: at 10 p.m., everyone should stand on their balconies and applaud the health workers who were diligently combating the outbreak. Across the city, with enthusiasm and gratitude, Madrileños united in the only way they were still allowed.
The quarantine has only just begun as I write these words. Tomorrow, we’ll learn more about the pandemic and more the next day. For the time being, though, this is the new normal.
This Voices story was written by Joseph Lyttleton. Originally from the states, Joseph now lives in Madrid, Spain.
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