With Spain about to end its official ‘state of alarm’ over Covid-19, an Australian resident of Valencia reflects on a year of the pandemic. By Robert Kidd.
Spain begins to open up
I can’t quite make out the words from behind his face mask. But, from the way he is belting them out and waving his arms, the man in the row in front of me is clearly enjoying himself.
We are at a concert and, as the band plays and the crowd sings along, this almost feels normal. Almost. The 2000 people at the outdoor venue sing behind face masks and clap hands sticky with sanitiser. They are, for the most part, obeying the rules that were set out in an email and reiterated in regular announcements at the venue: “The use of masks is obligatory at all times. It is prohibited to get up from your seat, except to go to the toilet.”
In the socially distanced queue to enter the venue, my temperature is taken using a “gun” pointed at my forehead. It might have seemed threatening had I not grown accustomed to the process. Inside, rows of plastic white lawn chairs are arranged in twos and threes, a safe distance from one another. It looks more like a garden party than a rock concert.
It is a little over a year since I wrote in these pages about how life in Valencia, Spain, had gone from lingering alfresco lunches and beers on the beach to one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. At the time, Spain was one of the countries worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and my wife, Penny, and I, like all Spanish residents, spent 48 days inside our small apartment. We could not leave for exercise or fresh air, only for essential supermarket or pharmacy visits. Given the number of cases, and the very real risk of infection, we made these as rare as possible.
Today, things look different. There are no restrictions on movement within the Valencian region. Up to six people may meet outside (while maintaining a safe distance) and we can go for a walk on the beach or a picnic in the park. The country’s vaccination campaign started slowly but has quickened. The oldest in the population of 47 million have received their jabs and, by the end of the European summer, we might have too.
The “new normal” takes some getting used to. Face masks are mandatory everywhere – indoors and out. Valencia has a 10pm curfew, so the usual 9pm restaurant reservation (yes, the Spanish eat late) isn’t much use. There remains an anxiousness being around people and the “elbow bump” greeting feels especially weird in a country where even strangers kiss each other on the cheek. Still, things have improved. One year ago, the army was patrolling the streets to ensure they were empty. Now, the police approach groups on the beach to politely remind them to socially distance.
We have watched Australia with a mixture of relief, disbelief and envy. On a Skype call with my Brisbane-based in-laws, they talk of mask-free meet-ups and sporting events with capacity crowds. I struggle to comprehend how 78,000 people can attend the MCG for an AFL match. Even more that they don’t have to wear masks. The contrast with Spain – where professional sport continues in empty stadiums – could hardly be more marked.
Greater Brisbane entered a three-day lockdown in March after recording four additional Covid-19 cases in the community. The day I am writing, the Valencian region has recorded 179 new cases, one of the lowest rates in Spain. When I told a Spanish friend about Brisbane’s snap lockdown, for a total of seven community cases, she thought I was joking. “These Australians,” she said, “they’re very paranoid, no?”
Australia has largely been held up as a success story for how it has dealt with the pandemic. Polling has shown most Australians support keeping borders closed and a December survey found 85 per cent supported the federal government’s response to the pandemic. The total number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 recorded by Australia is 910. In April last year, Spain recorded 950 coronavirus deaths in a single day.
When the scale of the pandemic became clear, some Australian friends in Valencia had to end their Spanish life and return home. It was not easy. They – a family of four with two young girls – were bumped from their flight the night before they were due to give notice on their rented apartment. When they were offered another flight, it was three months later. There were many hours listening to the hold music of Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways and KLM. There were many more in transit and quarantine.
Our own trip home to see loved ones was cancelled and is yet to be rescheduled. We consider ourselves lucky, we didn’t need to travel to Australia. We have not had the stress of last-minute flight cancellations or the threat of imprisonment if we attempt to return. But that doesn’t mean we miss our family and friends any less. Without the security of knowing we could be there in 24 hours if we had to, they feel even further away.
Some here have had enough of the restrictions. They slip their face mask off whenever they get the chance and tell anyone who will listen the flu kills more people than Covid-19. The mayor of Madrid, preparing for an election, has defied calls to close bars and restaurants even as the capital records more cases than other regions. She talks of “freedom” at rallies in a city where 12 months ago an ice-skating rink was used as an emergency morgue.
A “state of alarm” in Spain ends on May 9 and some are demanding restrictions be eased further, despite most regional leaders urging caution. Spain relies heavily on tourists and is desperate to welcome them from June. Businesses that rely on visitors may not survive another season without them.
The fear of coronavirus is not as intense as a year ago but has not disappeared. During the third wave of the virus, in January, friends were infected. While the statistics told us it was unlikely they would die, we knew of young, healthy people who had spent Christmas in intensive care. When 78,000 people have died from this virus, as they have in Spain, you take it seriously.
A year ago, I wrote that the pandemic would not truly hit home until someone close to us died. In February, three months short of her 98th birthday, my grandmother took her last breath in a nursing home in England. The death certificate listed Covid-19. We watched the funeral on webcam. Hugs were not allowed.
There is hope Spain is through the worst of the pandemic. The number of daily deaths has fallen considerably, even if counting bodies in their dozens rather than hundreds is no cause for celebration. We hope for a time when Covid-19 is a strange memory shared around the dinner table. We hope for a time when we can visit Australia without an asterisk.
At the concert, the band is excellent and energetic. Some audience members are unable to contain themselves and break free of their plastic chairs before being ticked off by weary security guards. Others spot a loophole and dance on trips to and from the portable toilets. The concert doesn’t finish until 9.30pm but, at 9.15pm, people start drifting out to make it home before curfew.
“La música vuelve a Valencia [music returns to Valencia],” the lead singer shouts into the mic. There are cheers muffled by masks. We leave just before the end and find people outside the venue. As the final song plays, away from the watchful eyes of security staff, they sing and jump and dance.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "From a distance".
During the final week of the election campaign we are unlocking all of our journalism. A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.