After a period of over-indulgence, there’s something very sobering about flying into a storm, and knowing you are unequivocally headed for crisis.
On the aeroplane, I read Weather, by Jenny Offill. The book felt prophetic, almost intrusively so. I’d been in Australia for the summer, having what felt like a three-month-long apocalyptic conversation, sometimes with family and friends, sometimes with myself. To offset the passivity of reading, I obsessively underlined Offill’s tongue-in-cheek doomsday hacks, as though they might really come in handy, given the situation awaiting me on the ground. I reminded myself to buy tinned tuna in case I need to improvise a candle – even though I’m vegetarian, even though we already have candles in the house.
I arrived home in Madrid on Friday the 13th of March, the day the Spanish government declared a national State of Alarm in response to Covid-19. The death toll had just topped one hundred.
Despite the cautionary tale unfolding on the other side of the Mediterranean, there were still negligible restrictions on crowds or the movement of individuals. Just a few days earlier, my partner had attended an International Women’s Day rally in the centre, along with 120,000 others. Amongst them was Begoña Gomez, the Prime Minister’s wife, who subsequently tested positive for the virus.
As I’m writing this, it is Easter, and the streets are empty of the bleeding effigies and robed brotherhoods that usually draw far greater crowds than on IWD. After nine years in Spain, I’ve always struggled to empathise with the anguish and self-flagellation that characterise Semana Santa processions. Yet now, the absence of such public mourning brings far greater sadness, as thousands of families grieve in quarantine, without ceremony, surviving members often isolated from each other.
The death toll may be staggering but, given the scarcity and inefficacy of tests and gross misreporting of fatalities (particularly in nursing homes), the statistics aren’t even close to representative.
So far, the only pattern I understand or have observed since landing, is that the higher the official numbers, the fewer the degrees of separation. This is how the circle closes in: what was previously read about from afar, is heard the next town (or country, or barrio) over, then in yours. Then it’s friends of relatives, relatives of friends. Then suddenly, the connections are direct. Our colleagues, our students, our friends.
So far, it has not touched family. My partner’s parents, who are in their seventies, and her ninety-three-year-old grandmother, who lives with them, are safe and well, a few hours from Madrid. There’s little we can do to help them, except call, and be grateful they’re taking the threat seriously.
Frighteningly, not everybody is. Older Spaniards, who are most at risk, tend to be more conservative, and consequently distrusting of the current left-wing government. It took two elections and months of hung parliament in the second half of 2019 for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to form a coalition between the PSOE – the long-standing Socialist Workers’ Party – and Podemos, born of the 15-M protests in Madrid of 2011. So far, they’ve bungled their first major test. Sánchez will never be forgiven for such fatal stalling at the outset, even though it’s doubtful the opposition would have acted differently. Nevertheless, conservatives (citizens, economists, politicians) continue to criticise lockdown protocol as draconian, socialist nonsense – an attitude which is not only paradoxical, but life-threatening. Meanwhile, Vox – a new, far right party which is gaining alarming traction – manipulates images of the emergency to foster dissent and fuel hate speech.
It’s due to this overload of contrasting or unreliable information that ‘checking in on people’ has become such an integral part of lockdown.
Whilst the revival of phone calls, and the fact we are consulting our parents rather than Google for recipes, is indicative of what many extol as a need for human contact, we’re just as desperate for first-hand testimonies, even the most mundane. In a world of fake news and biased (or biasing) algorithms, speaking with a real person about their lived experience is preferable to navigating infinite data on a screen.
Having maintained social lives in opposite hemispheres for years, always keenly missing wherever I am not, I feel like I’m well adapted to this new reality. However, it’s bizarre to think my friends in Spain are just as physically unreachable as family are in Melbourne.
Two of my workmates from Madrid, a couple, are recovering from the virus. Fortunately, they’ve been able to ride it out at home, while (fearing for their jobs) continuing to teach part-time online. Now that the worst is over, we get together with mutual friends for cibercañas (cyber drinks). Each latecomer to the chat asks them the same question. What was it like?
Australians ask me the same about Spain, and my partner and I repeat the question to friends in every populated continent, the accumulation of many years abroad. ‘What is it like, where you are?’
When describing the situation here, my first instinct is to paraphrase terrifying headlines from the Spanish press.
There is a bottleneck for cremations. Madrid’s ice rink has been converted into a morgue.
Drones are detaining and fining people with loudspeakers.
The convention centre where Greta Thunberg spoke last December has been converted into the country’s biggest hospital overnight.
I have to trust that this information is correct, as my physical experience of the outside world is now limited to my balcony and a nearby supermarket.
Curious about the front line, and concerned for her wellbeing, I write to one of my students, a nurse in her sixties.
In a summer English program last year, María gave a presentation that affected me and the rest of the group profoundly. It was about working in the ER at a public hospital, the morning of the Atocha terrorist attacks in 2004. She described how, after finally stabilising the endless flow of victims, her team were kept back that night, because the King and Queen were visiting the hospital. The staff were lined up, delirious from exhaustion and still having no outside news, and were expected to courteously interact with the monarchs. The hardest part of the day, she said through tears, was finding a man who’d died alone on a trolley in a corridor, because nobody had been able to get to him on time.
Now, María tells me she is well, but tired. More emotionally than physically drained. They do not need translators, thank you anyway, and she’s ok for groceries. Please, just stay at home and look after yourself. We will have a big hug in the summer, when all this is over.
Just stay at home. It is humbling, to know the best thing most of us can do is nothing.
The pandemic has triggered a host of dichotomies. The threat of a physical pathogen, versus the collapse of an abstract economy. The split between essential and non-essential workers. For those of us lucky enough to be able to retreat inside our houses, the outside world becomes increasingly hostile. Traditionally lively places are now deathly quiet, yet those associated with death are the biggest hubs of activity. Coffin manufacturers are working nights and weekends, while hospitality staff are not working at all. The distribution of labour has never been so skew-whiff.
Solidarity and ingenuity have shown us the best of people, but the pandemic has also brought out the worst kinds of opportunism. There is a new black market for protective clothing. A spike in domestic violence. The government has had to limit gambling advertising and freeze skyrocketing funeral costs, as predators looking to make a quick fortune take advantage of desperate people.
It is only, perhaps, the line between the real and virtual that seems to be blurring.
While scrolling, almost masochistically, through the void, I come across a satirical Twitter account through which the ‘virus’ speaks directly to the public. Often tweeting from ‘inside’ infected politicians, @CoronaVid19 displays a morbid, subversive kind of humour. Amongst frequent jabs at the patriarchy, the account helps propagate more serious messages, such as that of #mascarilla19. Originating in the Canary Islands but now used in mainland Spain, ‘mask 19’ is a code word that is ‘ordered’ in pharmacies, to sound an alarm on gendered violence.
As well as feminist, @CoronaVid19 is also queer. When, on March 26, the Royal Spanish Academy officially changed the grammatical gender of ‘coronavirus’ from masculine to feminine, she came out as the first transgender virus in history.
Unprecedented times, indeed.
I now turn to a virtual pathogen for what feels like more astute commentary than what is provided by most TV channels. And while social media is obviously not a reliable news source, its capacity to catalyse and create news is indisputable. A good example of this was the recent hashtag duo #coronaciao and #caceroladareal. The former does not refer to the virus, but ‘la corona’, the Spanish crown. The latter called for a ‘royal saucepaning’, probably best described as a mass bashing of pots and pans in protest against the monarchy.
When thousands are dying due to an under resourced health system, the latest royal scandal, (involving Emeritus King Juan Carlos I, and an alleged €88 million in undeclared Saudi Arabian donations tied up in Swiss-Panama bank accounts), came as a particularly insulting blow to the public. To save face, King Felipe ‘disinherited’ his father, but the gesture did not placate. While he was delivering his address on national television, the King’s voice was drowned out, all over the country, by the cacophony of dissent.
Three weeks into lockdown, my partner is issued a certificate permitting a trip to the office in order to pick up supplies.
The excursion makes me jealous but also paranoid. While waiting for what seems like far too long, I pace up and down the balcony, imagination overwrought with calamities that might have befallen her in the outside world.
Eventually, I receive a cryptic explanation for the delay. Her company is crumbling.
‘All the companies are crumbling,’ I text back, impatiently. ‘The whole economy is crumbling.’
She sends me a photo of her office. There’s been a leak upstairs, the roof is caving in, paint and plaster litter the desks and floor.
Hours later, she returns triumphantly with a dying pot plant to add to our collection of overwatered specimens.
On the balcony, we discuss her damp and disintegrating workplace. Compared to the calm of our street, the ordeal seems far away already – like a nightmarish, alternate reality. We wonder how many burst pipes and dead plants must be accumulating in this world of empty offices. I visualise an urban wasteland of crumbling buildings, overgrown with vines and brambles. Perhaps I’ll need to make a candle from a tin of tuna after all.
Yet the truth is that my fantasies have never been more mundane. Rather than overthrow Old Power, what I really dream of is sitting in a park, or going to the local swimming pool (strange, how I used to think it crowded). I know it’s self-indulgent, from our little bubble of health, when other people’s lives have been so much more tragically altered. Which is why ‘the applauses’ are such an important part of the day.
Every evening at 8 pm, no matter what we’re doing (or not doing), neighbours flock to their windows and balconies, to clap, cheer and whistle their appreciation for front-line workers. This is followed by music, and sometimes dancing. After a month of lockdown, the novelty has not worn off. We now recognise the members of each flat, give a wave and a thumbs-up-as-a-question, hoping for a thumbs-up-with-a-nod in reply. These tiny exchanges elicit disproportionate joy, and feel like vital acts of solidarity.
Image: ‘Public healthcare must not be sold, it must be defended’, 7 April 2020. Flickr.