The “ice palace”, an ice rink in Madrid, is the chilling symbol of the Covid-19 crisis in Spain.
Housed inside a shopping centre, the rink is usually a place filled with life and the laughter of skaters sliding and gliding on the ice. Today, it is a place of death. The ice palace has been turned into a temporary morgue to deal with the ever-increasing number of victims taken by Covid-19.
At time of writing, Spain had recorded almost 90,000 cases of the virus. More than 8000 people have died, the most of any country except Italy. As you read this, that number will be much higher. In Valencia, the sunny city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast known for paella and pyrotechnics, it is almost three weeks since I locked the door of the apartment I share with my wife, Penny. We have opened it perhaps half a dozen times since.
The debates about the actions and inactions of world governments will continue, but in Spain the rules of lockdown have at least been clear. Spanish residents are only permitted to leave their homes to visit the supermarket or pharmacy or if they are an “essential worker”. There is an allowance for taking your dog out to relieve itself, but no allowance for exercise. Police cars patrol the empty streets, ready to dish out hefty fines – potentially thousands of euros – to those who flout the rules.
If ever there was a country unprepared for an extended stretch indoors, it is Spain. Two-and-a-half years living in Valencia is enough to learn the old cliché that Spaniards “live life on the street” exists for good reason. About two-thirds of the population live in apartments, while Spain is top of the list of countries with the most bars per capita. This is a place where you can walk into any bar and order a cold beer and a plate of patatas bravas for a few euros, then while away the afternoon on a sunny terrace. Why wouldn’t you be outside?
The Spanish are also tactile people. Elderly men ruffle the hair of children without suspicious looks from parents and señoras gently touch you on the arm while chatting in supermarket queues. Meeting new people means a kiss on both cheeks. The offer of a hand to shake – at least in the times before the virus – would be met with confused or pitying looks at the cold Anglo in front of them.
I spend a good portion of my working life at home, so the idea of a couple of weeks in quarantine didn’t fill me with dread. We would find a routine, I confidently told Penny, to pass the time productively in our 96-square-metre, first-floor flat. With regular work quickly drying up as the scale of the pandemic became clear, perhaps this was an opportunity to start writing that book I’ve always thought about? To extend my cooking skills beyond spaghetti bolognaise? Or, maybe, to use this time to cajole and sculpt my body into that of a Greek god?
One friend optimistically suggested I’d emerge from lockdown as some sort of spiritual guru, with a deep inner peace and Zen-like clarity. Either that or a social media addiction.
The reality, inevitably, is something different. It is not quite all day in pyjamas, but motivation can be hard to unlock when you’re locked in. Things you wouldn’t usually consider are suddenly appealing (Love Is Blind on Netflix, anyone?). Taking the rubbish to the street has become a strange treat for the brief breath of fresh air.
Those with young children of course must entertain more than just themselves. But difficulty doesn’t always have to be measured in degrees. Lockdown is harder for some people, but it’s hard for everyone.
Exercise is complicated but not impossible with a little invention. Friends in Valencia, who had their yoga or personal training businesses decimated overnight, have started online classes. Penny and I also take awkward laps around the apartment, dodging the dining table and running past the clothes horse before meeting for star jumps beside the microwave.
Penny is training to be a pastry chef, and I have never been more supportive. She bakes bread and brownies and pretzels and scones. I plan for extra star jumps tomorrow.
I am growing a full beard, with daily updates that are similar to watching the proverbial paint dry. I am also reading more books than I have in a long time. A double luxury that takes your mind to another place, and away from the relentless news cycle of increasingly scary statistics. Last weekend we took our books up to our building’s shared roof terrace to sit in the sun beside drying bedsheets.
We are also making an effort to stay in touch with family and friends. A Skype with a glass of wine in hand isn’t exactly the same as being at the pub together, but it’s not a bad substitute. I check in with old friends to ensure they have sufficient supplies of toilet paper. I explain the video-conferencing app Zoom to my mum and ambitiously suggest she move her book club online. From a living room in southern California, our 18-month-old niece blows kisses to a camera in a screen and melts our hearts.
As we are getting used to life indoors, the Spanish government announces it is extending lockdown for another two weeks. April 12, Easter Sunday, is the provisional date when restrictions could be lifted. Letting Spaniards resume normal life on a day of church services and family lunches seems unlikely, irresponsible. Another extension would not be a surprise.
Thinking too far ahead is not advisable. We have flights to Australia in late June, a trip to see loved ones that will probably not take off. My grandmother, who turns 97 next month, spends her days in a care home in England where visitors are banned and no one knows when they will be allowed to return. The daily numbers of the sick and dead are frightening, but they probably will not truly hit home until someone we know dies. We hope that day does not come.
In Spain, people do their best to stay positive. One enterprising man organised bingo for an apartment block and, in Valencia, a “balcony festival” encouraged musicians to serenade their streets.
There are still selfish people. A viral video shows a man stopped by the police for walking a toy dog. The shelves here were also emptied of toilet paper.
But there is a sense of community. The nightly applause for health and supermarket workers, which started in Italy, takes place across Spain. At 8pm, we open our windows to the street and to our neighbours and start to clap. In the building opposite, a couple and their young children are on their balcony on the sixth floor, the kids clearly relishing the chance to make noise after another day indoors. At another window, a woman and her elderly mother appear in dressing gowns. Below them, a middle-aged man emerges waving to his neighbours like a rock star. Every night, when the clapping finishes, he roars “hasta mañana!” (“see you tomorrow!”) to the street.
Some nights, the police drive down, turning on their sirens to cheers. Red Cross workers have come too, sheepishly acknowledging the thunderous applause after another draining shift. After a few minutes, the clapping stops, we close our windows and retreat inside. It is something small, but it is something hopeful.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2020 as "The strain in Spain".
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