I wrote this about the last week in Madrid as the COVID-19 pandemic spread and Spain imposed strict rules to fight the spread. This is just the first portion, follow the link to read the whole piece.
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.