50 days of solitude and the new Spain

Plaza Mayor, Madrid (Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash).

In the blink of an eye everything changed: waiting in line outside supermarkets suddenly felt normal; being a dog owner became the ultimate symbol of freedom; and we monitored the outside world from our living rooms, analysing each masked and gloved passer-by as they hurried along barren streets, patrolling police cars adding to the dystopian feel of it all.

Spain has begun a six-week transition to what prime minister Pedro Sánchez has termed “the new normal” and with that we are stepping gingerly out into a new Spain, unsure of what to expect.

Whereas, six months ago barely a handful of people would ever be seen wearing protective face masks on public transport, it has now become compulsory.

The structures of society dissipated before our eyes; deeply ingrained cultures and traditions uprooted and discarded to the side in an instant by a virus which swept mercilessly across the globe.

Spain is slowly returning to some semblance of normality after extreme lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, the severity of which can appreciated only by Italian citizens and Wuhan residents. The measures, described by many as draconian, have worked; the curve has been flattened but the death toll of well over 25,000 has the Spanish government fearing a relapse.

May 2, the first exercise for many in Spain for 50 days.

Freedom

Saturday, May 2 — a momentous day in Spanish history when the city of Madrid rebelled against occupation by French troops in 1808 — saw most of the country leave their homes for exercise for the first time in fifty days. For a society who lives life on its streets, in its bars, in its parks and plazas, being confined, in many cases alone in small apartments, has been a tremendous physical and mental test.

As mortality and infection rates continue to steadily decrease, normality will continue to slowly return to the streets of Spain — but so too will the frustration.

Frustration at the failure to act quickly and decisively as the coronavirus devastated Italy; frustration at an under-funded and ill-equipped health service facing the gravest humanitarian crisis to hit the country since the 1936 Civil War; and frustration towards the incessant one-upmanship on display at parliamentary level.

Pablo Casado, leader of the opposition Partido Popular recently said: “Unity is not a guarantee that a pandemic will be better resolved.” Their counterparts in Portugal would beg to differ.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the far-right VOX party, accused Mr Sánchez of turning Spain into “a giant Chavista jail,” and the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, later retaliated, branding Mr Abascal’s party “parasites.” Catalan President Quim Torra has also deemed the situation a prime opportunity to push his Catalan Independence agenda.

With each manoeuvre and accusation, the political fault lines have become increasingly pronounced and the collective exasperation of the public more audible.

“There (Portugal) we saw citizens and political forces being much more compact, helping each other,” Teresa Ribero, current Minister for the Ecological Transition, told El País newspaper, adding that, “In a country where there are parties organising protests against the government to coincide with, and try to drown out, the applause for healthcare workers it shows how complicated the situation is during very difficult times.”

According to a recent poll by Metroscopia, 69% of Spaniards believe the current government does not have a clear plan for managing the return to normality. Meanwhile, their polls also show that Mr Sanchez´s approval ratings fell from 64% to 39% between March and April. The new coalition, accused from all sides of lacking transparency, appears fragile a little over 100 days into its term.

Social distancing meet-ups in Spain — the new normal for the foreseeable future.

The New Spain

El Diario report that 282,291 people lost their jobs due to the direct impact of COVID-19 in April, bringing the total unemployment figure in Spain to 3.8 million. The IMF has projected an 8% slump in 2020, with a strong recovery in 2021.

In the coming weeks Mr Sánchez will look to turn the political tide and garner support to quickly implement measures in order to accelerate economic recovery. A failure to give small businesses, the lifeblood of the economy, the necessary oxygen and support to stay alive, then a v-shaped resurgence in 2021 becomes a lot less likely.

Tourism alone represents 12% of overall GDP and an estimated 13% of overall employment. Spain was visited by a record 83.7 million tourists in 2019, bringing the country to seven consecutive years of historical highs. This year will put an end to that run, and it remains to be seen if internal tourism will be able to limit the damage to the sector.

As seen in the wake of the 2008 economic crises, it will be the younger generations who feel the brunt of the blow, especially those further down the socio-economic ladder. Schools, society’s great leveler, have gone digital and classes and materials are now being provided via the internet.

The Ministry of Education estimates that approximately 10% of the 8.2 million students in Spain are now unable to follow classes online. However, according to El País, in the Catalan and Valencian communities this number is actually closer to 15%, while parents in Andalusian cities like Seville, Granada and Jaen claim that this figure is 20%.

Moreover, just when it felt that Spain had, at last, been released of the stranglehold of “la crisis” and the double-dip recession, it looks like some young adults will be hit with their second economic crisis in a decade. According to the body responsible for monitoring issues related to young people in Spain, CJE, a mere 18.5% of young adults between the age of 16–29 have found the means to move out of home.

A deserted motorway at sunset near Madrid’s Barajas airport on May 3, 2020.

While all of mainland Spain finds itself in “phase zero” of the government’s roadmap to the new normal, three of the Canary Islands (La Gomera, La Graciosa and El Hierro) as well as Formentera in the Balearic Islands entered Phase 1 on Monday, May 4 with small businesses and bars and restaurants with outdoor seating re-opening at reduced capacity while adhering to strict hygiene and social distancing guidelines. This will be the norm across the rest of the country from May 11.

Life in Spain is lived together: in its bars and restaurants with families and friends, bumping elbows at the counter with the locals, crowds spilling out onto narrow streets until the early hours. For the foreseeable future, the reality will be very different. The new normal will be social distancing, rigorous hygiene checks and staff serving food and beverages behind protective face masks.

For a society where physical contact is so innate, Spain will have to learn how to live as a society again in the coming weeks and months. There will be no embrace for family members who have spent months apart.

A part of history

This period will have served to strengthen the bond between many of us expats and our adopted home. We are living through both Spanish and European history, a period of great loss and societal and political change.

We have applauded the healthcare workers at 8pm every night; we have hummed “resistiré”, the song of defiance; and we too spent 50 days without real exercise, only leaving our homes to stand in line at the supermarket alongside our neighbours — we have all been in this together. While us guiris will never be Spanish, perhaps after this we will be just a little more Spanish.

For the time being Spain has been placed in a societal straitjacket but, right now, after fifty days of solitude people are longing for any type of normality — whatever it may look like.

Irish - living in Madrid. Write about Spain, its cities and culture; real people and places; current affairs. Supporter of real journalism.

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