A Postcard From Spain

12 May 2020. Updated 25 May 2020.

by Thomas Andopelo

Here in Spain, a full seven weeks of house-arrest has now “relaxed” into a British version of lockdown, the primary concession being that people are now allowed out for a walk or to do something sporty. And what better way to stop the virus in its tracks than to insist that the under 70s exercise this right only between 6 am and 10 am or 8 pm and 11 pm – thus ensuring they are all out on the street together?

Such evidently absurd stipulations have convinced me that, for the politicians at least, Covid-19 has targeted brains rather than lungs. Nevertheless, there is widespread approval, and the traditional Spanish attitude of treating laws more like suggestions is noticeably absent.

The pervading attitude here appears to be that if we lock down for long enough the virus will eventually get bored. It is as if, metaphorically speaking, we have all climbed up a tree to escape from a tiger, which is now pacing around below. Given time, everybody expects that it will get fed up and wander off somewhere else, never to return. No-one wants reminding that at the foot of the tree is our food and water and after being stuck up the tree all day we are getting muscle cramps and feeling very thirsty. (Nor is it mentioned that we didn’t get a very good glimpse of the tiger and, in fact it might only have been a fox.)

Another taboo topic here – as in the UK – is any mention of the age demographic of most of Covid-19’s victims, a detail which is absent from almost all media reports. Taking any comfort from the fact that it primarily affects the over-70s and that therefore the lockdown could be better targeted at this age group is tantamount to saying that old people are expendable. Instead we are told “Lo paramos unidos” (we will stop it together), and so the least vulnerable group – under-18s – is now decimated by cabin-fever and remain isolated along with everyone else.

Spain’s likeable habit of doing things together has, in the case of Covid-19, led to a form of group-think that is wholly intolerant of dissent. Anyone found in the street outside of designated hours is a social pariah, and not wearing a mask is the new walking-around-in-just-your-underpants.

So uniform is opinion in Spain that it is only alternative UK-based media outlets or independent journalists broadcasting on the web that have provided me with any reassurance that I am not being gaslighted alone.

A lone voice in the wilderness is a YouTube character called “Spiriman”, a straight-talking, Granada-based medic whose scathing commentaries on government health policies recently described how, in the absence of having any patients to treat, hospital doctors were left “scratching their balls”. Worse still were his observations that a great many small, privately-owned bars that form part of the soul of this historic city could not possibly survive the continued quarantine, and that the myriad economic and social effects have thus far played no part in policy-making.

In a posting that received more than a quarter of a million views, Spiriman accused the government of treating its citizens like children, incapable of basic common sense. It is an attitude that I have had confirmed whenever I ask people what harm an earlier relaxation of the quarantine could have caused: apparently, Spanish culture just wouldn’t allow it. Many think that other people just wouldn’t be able to help themselves kissing one another and licking door-handles, apparently; and I can’t help wondering how hard it must be to engender a sense of personal responsibility in people if you never actually provide them the opportunity. It would suggest that the same people that are clearly concerned about becoming infected on the one hand suffer an inability or refusal to minimise their contagion risk on the other. A simple visit to the supermarket will tell you how false this assertion is and how seriously people take the current situation, so why does the government assume otherwise? Could it be that mistrust of its own citizens is masking the lack of faith it has in its own competence?

As we enter week eight, those areas that are considered ready are implementing “Phase 1” of unlocking. Bar terraces can open at 50% capacity along with smaller shops and markets, while hotels can open provided their communal spaces remain closed.

In the absence of data to show what proportion of the population have been exposed to the virus, it remains to be seen where exactly Spain is in the course of its spread and how quickly the government will implement all four stages of the “desescalada”.

Of course it is immune systems alone – rather than lockdowns – that will stop Covid-19, and that microscopic showdown will happen sooner or later, with or without the aid of politicians.

In months to come, when countries jostle for the position of “best response”, it probably won’t be per capita deaths that distinguish them, but how quickly social and economic life returned to normal and what remains of trust in their governments. Sadly, I suspect that Spain will be somewhere at the bottom of this table.

Granada, 10th May 2020.

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