Journal of the Plague Year – Life under Lockdown

It’s the third week of living under lockdown here in Barcelona, and things have been changing rapidly. For a start, we’ve had to develop a whole new vocabulary. Previously esoteric medical terms like “herd immunity”, “flattening the peak”, “self-isolation” and “social distancing” are now common currency, as everyone becomes an amateur epidemiologist.

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Information and communication from the government – whether that be Spain or Catalonia – has been scant to nonexistent. In fairness, this probably has something to do with my lack of ability in speaking Spanish, though I haven’t found much direct advice in Spanish either. What I’ve been able to glean is mostly from the news, which I have to keep a close eye on to keep track of any changes. It’s like playing online detective.

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Initially, these were the rules:

  • All non-essential businesses closed, especially cafes and bars (which appears to be most businesses here in Barcelona. Essential shops will remain open – this includes supermarkets, any food shops that don’t have an actual sitting area, pharmacies, and, surprisingly, Tabacs. At first it struck me as a bit weird that the desire to poison your lungs should be considered ‘essential’, but after a moment’s consideration, it made sense. Spain is a very heavy smoking country (surprising considering its reputation for high life expectancy). Giving up smoking makes you short tempered and prone to taking your anger out on everyone around you – not an ideal scenario when you’re locked down in your apartment with other people. So, yes, I guess Tabacs are essential.
  • All residents to stay in their homes, except for essential trips to go shopping for food. This should be done quickly, and you should hold on to your receipt as proof that you’ve been shopping and not just using it as an excuse to go outside.
  • You are allowed to walk your dog. Barcelona is very much a dog town (you rarely see cats on the street), and I guess the dog owners had a reasonable requirement to take Fido out for walkies rather than have him yapping away in distress. But seriously, would it hurt them to pick up the vast amount of shit they seem to leave on the pavements?
  • You can’t just go out for a walk. Unlike lockdowns in some other countries, no allowance has been made for simply getting out for exercise. Shopping and dog walking are your only opportunities. Unsurprisingly, there is now a trade in renting out dogs to those who don’t own one, simply to enable them to go outside.

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That first weekend, people weren’t taking it too seriously – including the police. I actually went out to meet up with Tom for a beer and a chat that first weekend, and we sat in the communal area near Carrer de Parliament. Other people were sitting around too, mostly not staying two metres apart. Police cars occasionally cruised by, but didn’t stop. Apart from the conspicuous lack of open bars, everything seemed almost normal.

That didn’t last long. There’d already been panic buying in the big supermarkets, and when I went out to get some shopping on the rainy Monday of the first lockdown week, I found queues had started to form outside the markets, the security staff operating a one in, one out policy. That day it was a fairly short queue (perhaps because of the rain), but in the weeks since the queues have grown longer and longer as shops cut down on the amount of customers allowed in at a time.

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Having finally got inside, I only actually wanted some wine, beer and rice. The rice shelves had been picked clean, so I picked up some cheap Vino Tinto and a 12 pack of San Miguel, since the latter was on special offer. When I reached the till, the clerk told me I couldn’t buy the 12 pack – customers were restricted to no more than 6 of each item. Hilariously, he simply used a knife to cut the pack in half, and allowed me to purchase that while the rest went back to the shelves.

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With my school closed, I was eagerly anticipating being able to teach online – as soon as they’d sorted it out. I waited for info until Wednesday, only to receive a phone call saying the school had decided not to go with that solution, unlike many others. Instead, all the teachers would be getting wages from the Spanish government under a scheme called ERTE. This would provide 70% of earnings, based on the last three months of pay.

That wasn’t encouraging, given that I’ve been living pretty much hand to mouth even before this crisis. Still, with everyone locked down in their apartments, there wasn’t much opportunity to actually spend much. Maybe it will work out – I don’t know yet, as no payments have been received. I did receive payment from the school for the first two weeks of March, and I’m still living off that.

God knows what will happen when the landlord asks for the rent – currently I don’t have enough money to pay it and buy food as well. My roommate Peter, who works customer service for a big company, is working from home and therefore being paid as normal. He’s very kindly offered to help out if possible, so hopefully I won’t be out on the street. Like the UK, Spain has announced suspension of mortgage payments for the duration of the crisis, but said nothing about private renters, who probably make up most of the city’s residents. Fingers crossed they can’t evict us all.

Which brings me to Barcelona’s homeless population. They haven’t moved at all – their ‘lockdown’ remains the shop doorways and back alleys of the city as ever. While other countries have recognised that streets full of homeless people are a risk not only to the homeless themselves, but also to any passersby in range of their coughs, Barcelona has, as of now, done nothing to alleviate that.

In fact, just opposite my apartment in Carrer de la Riereta is a homeless shelter and soup kitchen, and due to the crisis, they’ve had to drastically reduce their opening hours. The corollary of this is milling crowds of homeless people in the street waiting for the 14:00 opening, and sadly they have no concept of ‘social distancing’ between each other or anyone else. Also many of them seem to have real problems like alcoholism and mental issues like Tourette’s. The shouted lunchtime chorus of “puta!” and “cabron!” is now a regular daily event. I can’t see that this is helping contain the spread if the virus. Meanwhile, police are stopping and fining people out for a walk by themselves.

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Still, the other regular daily event is rather more uplifting. That first weekend, a tradition began whereby everyone would come to their windows and balconies to cheer and applaud Spain’s hard pressed healthcare staff. With hundreds dying every day, it may not be much, but hopefully at least they’ll feel their sacrifice is recognised. That first night, the applause was at 22:00; the next day it became 20:00, and has continued on a daily basis since. It was heartening to see the UK following suit, but so far it looks like that will be at most a weekly event. Here in Spain, it’s every night. And deservedly so.

With no work and no ability to leave the house, for me this mini-apocalypse is actually rather more boring than frightening. I’m still trying to process my grief over my mum’s death a month ago – it feels like that’s on hold until I can at least get a hug from a friend, which is sorely needed right now. In the mean time, I’ll try to write a bit more often on how all this is developing – watch this space.

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