COVID-19 Around the World

Begonya in Spain

Stories about COVID-19 from different corners of the world

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When you live in a foreign country, one part of you always remains there, it never leaves, that is where your roots are, no matter how far you go so I have lived covid-19 both in Ireland and in Spain. I have lived it in Spain through my family, through my friends, some of which are in the front line, some of which have been sick with the covid-19, some of which have lost family members who they could not give a proper funeral to, some of which are safe. I have shared their worry, their fear, their frustration but also their joy and their hopes. I have seen a lot of kindness and compassion in the community and I have seen this has brought people more together.

If you had told me weeks ago I would see my own mother wearing a mask to the supermarket, let alone walk around with it in the street I would have never believed you. In Spain, masks in the street was something never seen before this pandemic. Most people would have seen people wearing just in the news during swine flu, avian flu, SARS..but it was in other countries, in places far away and never would have imagine in their daily life.

Spain saw the first case of covid-19 in January 31st in La Gomera, Canary Islands. Despite having a case there and despite community transmission had started already in February the government did not stop the mass gatherings of March 8th in celebration of International Women´s day in Madrid. This contributed a lot to the spread of the virus, which by March 13th was already in 50 provinces. The population was furious, there was a reason that the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona had been cancelled to prevent the spread, why did the government allow the gatherings in Madrid? The discussion is still ongoing even now that the reopening of businesses has started.

Madrid became the epicentre of the pandemic in Spain. Being the capital, with a high concentration of people and having had the gathering for International Women´s Day meant that a lot of cases had spread in Madrid and neighbouring communities. There was talk of a lockdown but, before that happened,many escaped to their summer residencies, taking the virus with them in most cases to other communities that would have not had it so soon. This caused much unhappiness of the inhabitants of those places, who were not happy to see the people from other communities in their land.

Photo: friends going to exercise, wearing masks.

On March 14th the lockdown began. I was surprised it took the Spanish government so long to close the schools, which in Ireland already closed on March 12th despite not having so many cases. We had seen how fast cases had grown in China and how bad Italy, which was a country closer to home was struggling so the Spanish citizens were furious that the government was not protecting the people better, that the people in the front line did not have proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to protect themselves while treating the patients so when the lockdown measures were put in place there wasn´t much resistance initially to stay home. Many older people remembered how their parents would tell them horrendous stories from the Spanish Flu. I remember my mom telling us about the stories her uncle would tell them when in the Spanish flu time there was so many deaths in the town that people did not even notify the neighbours anymore, they lit a candle outside the door to let people know someone had died. All this memories together with memories of our grandparents during war times came rushing to many people and the worry set in.

Supermarkets were being raided like there was not going to be food supply for everyone. There was no facemasks one could buy as chemists ran out of them quick enough even though they sold them at prices of €6-7 a piece. One thing that seemed to disappear faster than they could restock the shelves at the supermarkets was toilet paper, maybe people did not want to see themselves in a situation of not enough or were going to use it as tissues or make masks with it, God knows, but the fact is that the shelves were empty pretty soon and as those packets are bulkier than say cans of legumes it was very noticeable and some would just copy and buy it too, just in case. The supermarket owners started asking the customers to please behave and reassuring them that there was not going to be a food shortage.

Truck drivers were working overtime to cater for these crazy buys. The older generation and more vulnerable started doing shopping every two weeks. Trying to get shopping online meant you may not get food delivered until 2 or 3 weeks time, so older people that did not have anyone to do the shopping or simply did not want to burden someone else did their shopping every 2 weeks, mostly at lunch hours or times where there should be less people. Neighbors looked out for the older generations and offered to shop or even to take the bins out for the elderly.

The first weeks of the confinement were ok, people did not know what lay ahead, the fact that Easter was only around the corner kept people going, kids did homework and played at home, teachers now had to deliver classes through online platforms and had more work than ever before as students took much more of their time. Parents working at home had to juggle being teachers, parents, workers, entertainers…while at the same time supporting the elderly in the communities. I talked to a few doctors in different hospitals and they defined the situation as ´really bad, the worse thing they´d ever seen´ and they all feared for their loved ones and for themselves since they did not have enough PPE and had to improvise and the worst had not yet arrived. All said the same: ´stay home and make sure your family stays home, ´. It puzzled me that tobacco shops still remained open as an ‘essential service’ all through this pandemic when only supermarkets and chemists remained open, but I guess we all have our definition of what is essential.

Hospitals started to overflow and lots of centres started to be conditioned as hospitals, even some hotels which now were not open to public were used as hospitals and because the deaths were so many, places like ice rinks were used as a morgue.

Many doctors were not returning home and were staying in different places than their families for fear of bringing this virus to them. I talked to a truck driver who was staying in a different apartment than his mom who is in the vulnerable group, he said with so much travel was hard to know what he could bring home.

Doctors were having to be both doctor and family to a patient, holding hands with patients in the last moments of their life. Soon enough universities and companies donated tablets and phones so the families could say goodbye to their loved ones and with time, as cases started to drop,one family member was allowed in to accompany a loved one in the last moments, but many did not get even to say goodbye.

Many factories turned their factory into a PPE production line to help the frontline and the public. People in the towns that knew how to sew helped the community by making facemasks at home and bringing them to the centres who needed them. Many businesses tried to help the cause.

I talked to a couple of priests, one of them survived the covid-19 but he wasn´t sure at times if he would survive and experienced some very difficult moments. The other never got it but he talked about the horror he had seen in the hospitals as he went there to help people with their last rites and visit the sick.

Frontline workers were working overtime and with little protection so many of them contracted the virus. The Spanish citizens started to come out at their balconies or windows to clap every day at 20.00h for them and show them support and gratitude. It gave me peace to know that my mom, despite being alone had that moment where she could see her neighbours and that everyone checked that she was there every evening. It gave me peace to know that she had that support from the neighbours. Many older people were in that situation so it was good that they had that moment in the day that someone was checking on them, it made me emotional to think of it. I am forever grateful that she had that moment every day where she could see her neighbours and chat with people that are not at the other side of a screen.

Photo: People meeting meeting in outdoor bars, wearing masks.

Soon this clapping in some areas became a social event and some would put music, some even had Facebook groups where you could request a song. Some communities would dress up of a different theme every day and it was a way of keeping the kids having some bit of fun amongst all this hardship the country was seeing and trying to dissipate their worries.Most people live in apartments in Spain and it´s a lot more confining for the people in lockdown that in places like Ireland where people live mostly in houses and they have some yard or garden where kids can play outside.

Spain is a country where people gather. We like to meet with our friends and chat over coffee or a few beers, it´s part of our culture. After the first couple of weeks people started getting tired of being at home and devised ways of getting out for a bit. Some brought the kids to the terraces at the top of their buildings for a stretch, some brought the dog in more walks than necessary, some went shopping a lot more. Police went around fining people that were not going out for just essentials and even in helicopters to tell the people in terraces at top of buildings to go back to their homes. It became harder as time went by.

There has been a lot of death, a lot of hardship and the government is still going over the mistakes made, but finally the numbers have come down.Spain is proceeding to re-open some businesses and allowing the citizens to go out a lot more, specially the kids that up to now were not allowed out. There is timetables in place according to age group so people don´t go out all at the same time. Masks are compulsory and now are available everywhere and cost around €0.65, most elderly get them free and some places give them away too.You can be fined if not wearing a mask and the very hot weather does make it challenging.

You see people in outdoor bars sitting and sipping coffee or having a beer with their friends moving the masks when they want to drink. Some wear it like some sort of beard or neck warmer, but most still wear it properly still despite the heat. People are cautious but trying to enjoy outdoor life as much as possible.As the heat sweeps the country people still wonder how the summer will be this year as restrictions lift and more people move around, but they keep hope that the worst is now behind them.

Stay safe.

Begonya N. in Spain

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