In Spain, door handles are not knobs that turn, but levers that you depress. You can open a door with just a bit of downward pressure from the heel of your hand, or your forearm, or elbow, or the corner of the box you are bearing. With almost anything, really. But until last Thursday, the last day of the week of English class at the academy where I teach, in a week full of talk of the coronavirus, I hadn’t fully appreciated these handles, sometimes elegant, sometimes stubby, sometimes more like a toilet-paper holder than a door handle. I’d asked my students what they were being told at their regular school about the virus, and what they thought about it. One student reported that his teacher pushed the door open with her foot. Another said her mother wouldn’t touch door handles either but carried the tube from a toilet paper roll and used it over the handle. Well, that’s ingenious, I thought, a protective sheath! Someone was undoubtedly already marketing it, making a mint. It’s astonishing to me how quickly some people spring into action and how clumsily others do.
When my first class of students left that afternoon, it was amid much speculation about school for the coming week. Would it be shut down or not? Everyone expected an announcement that day, or the next, from the provincial government of Asturias. Schools had been closed in the capital of Oviedo on a school-by-school basis at first, as cases of COVID-19 infection appeared among students or teachers. Then all the Oviedo schools. Meanwhile, extracurricular school activities here in Gijón had been suspended. Then all sports events. And then, shortly after 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, the news came that all schools in Asturias were closing, effective the next day, for two weeks.
And yet it wasn’t entirely clear what was being shut down: public schools or private? Big and small? Were we closing our doors? As we wondered, students came, parents called, our boss consulted from home with other language academies, and we four teachers and the secretary got quite comfortable telling anyone who asked, “We just don’t know.”
We also didn’t know if the academy would refund students, if we teachers would still be paid, if the government would pay our salaries should we be told to stay home, or if we’d be compensated at 75 percent of our pay, as is the case for a work accident. We had no idea.
But we speculated, and we exchanged stories. I mentioned a friend who’d arranged to sell his supply of paper carpentry masks online for €25 a piece. “That’s impossible,” I had said when he’d told me—I knew they retailed for 40 centimos. “People are crazy,” he said. He had 16 masks and stood to make almost €400. Someone else brought up the soccer match played in Madrid to empty stands to prevent the amassing of fans, who congregated anyway, filling the nearby bars and gathering in the street outside the stadium. The 3,000 Italian tourists arriving the day before at Mallorca aboard a cruise ship and disembarking in Palma to visit the city, despite the cancelation of all flights to and from Italy. My friend just back from Italy the weekend before, told of filling out a form in Venice before boarding, detailing her stay in the country. She was supposed to hand it in on arrival in Madrid, but no one asked for it. Also the university closings in Madrid, the first in the country, to reduce the spread of coronavirus, but which led to the opposite when students went home to other communities, some taking the virus with them, as happened with a student from Galicia. A village in País Vasco that was closed off. Two towns in Cataluña in quarantine. “What’s next?” we wondered.
Everyone had a story about stopping at a store. When I’d driven by the neighborhood market that day, cars lined the road outside as well as filling the lot. An elderly woman was crossing the street, doubled over by the two five-kilo sacks of potatoes. Those who’d pushed their way into overcrowded supermarkets reported nearly empty shelves. No cleaning supplies, dried fruits or nuts, beans, fruits, meats, or vegetables. And toilet paper cleaned out, here just as everywhere. We’d heard reports of toilet paper shortages in places that had yet to report any virus cases. I wondered if someone was extracting the tubes to sell online.
The astonishing thing for me was how fast the events accumulated. Two weeks before, on March 1, at a race that I ran, people mingled freely and acquaintances greeted one another with kisses. Three hundred runners competed. The following weekend at another race with more than 1,000 runners, again we bunched up together as if germs didn’t exist, though at the awards ceremony I noticed some people didn’t give the usual kiss but shook hands instead. What will they do at the next race, I wondered. I signed up for one, but two days later that race, like all sports events planned for the coming weeks, was canceled.
As of Thursday, of 49 cases in Asturias, one had ended in death and one in a cure, and the rest were still open. Yet people still gathered to make jokes about the situation and laugh at the absurdities. As Gijón contemplated the school shutdown, the word was that bars and restaurants would be next. What, the ultra-sociable Spanish give up their meeting places, their fraternizing? A friend was still blithely planning a week’s vacation out of the country. It was as if the coronavirus had snuck up to say “Boo!” and some people were trembling and some laughing at the joke.
On Friday evening, Cataluña, with 509 cases in a population of 7.5 million, closed its borders effective at midnight. Half the country’s people were confined to their homes while the other half were enjoying themselves at the beach or at the bars. Heads of some regions voiced reproach for other regions. On that day, the president of Spain announced a State of Alarm, to be declared on Saturday after approval by the government.
By Saturday morning, when I went out to buy a thermometer and learned that there were none, people in the streets were now taking the situation seriously. Cities and regions were now issuing travel restrictions, and though many people still ignored them, it wasn’t only those in the health service who were outraged by the flaunting of precautions. Many people now talked of acting responsibly. A warning from a friend who works at the hospital in Gijón, about an expected spike in numbers of infected, began to sink in. At the pharmacies where I stopped, we waited well-spaced on the street to enter one at a time; the pharmacists at the first establishment wore masks and gloves; at the second a new plastic window had been installed over the counter. Bars and restaurants were either shuttered or preparing to close for the noon deadline, churches would not be holding services, hardware stores and dollar stores and clothing shops were closed. The earlier sense that there was nothing to worry about and nothing to do was gone. My boss called at noon to say the academy would be closed for at least two weeks. Of course, I thought, hardly believing I’d ever wondered.
Saturday evening, after a seven-hour meeting of ministers, President Pedro Sánchez announced the decree, amounting to countrywide house confinement except for work, for visits to health centers, pharmacies, grocery stores, the newsstand, and, strangely, to the hairdressers and dry-cleaners, and for walking the dog. Nobody else is allowed on the street. Noncompliance is a felony. The government has the power to requisition public or private resources, such as private hospitals or hotels to set up as hospitals. By Sunday morning, more than 6,300 cases had been reported, half in Madrid, with 197 deaths and 517 patients cured. The 49 cases in Asturias were by then up to 109. By Monday there were more than 9,400 total, 177 in Asturias.
What’s next, people seem to agree now, is that things will get much worse. If you doubt it, look at Italy. Cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas afeitar, pon las tuyas a remojar. When you see your neighbor shave his beard, moisten yours. Get ready to follow suit, in other words.
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