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In just a few weeks, Spain has become one of the world’s worst-hit countries in the Covid-19 pandemic and, at the time of writing, has more than 39,000 cases. At midnight on 13 March, the country shut all its non-essential shops, as well as restaurants, bars and schools, and at midnight the following Sunday a full lockdown came into play.
Residents in Spain are in lockdown, only able to leave the house to go to work (if they are key workers) or to stock up on essentials at the supermarket or pharmacy. To enforce these strict rules, police drive through the neighbourhoods at least once a day to check residents are complying. If they’re found to have no valid reason, they could be fined, typically around €600 (£538).
It was 25 February when the first case of coronavirus was reported in Barcelona, and very quickly, life has become barely recognisable in Spain’s second-largest city. The city streets are now empty and quiet. The once-lively tapas bars are shuttered up, the famed Catalan festivals have all been cancelled and there is no more chatter on street corners. In a matter of weeks, everyone’s lives here have been completely altered.
Nicola Small, a teacher at one of Barcelona’s international schools, is now teaching solely online. “At first it was a bit of an adjustment,” she says. “But the students have been fantastic and got the hang of it really quickly. I’ve found the routine of continuing to teach invaluable for keeping some normality in my day-to-day life, and I think the students have, too.” Online teaching is not without its challenges. “It isn’t easy to provide feedback for their written work, and I do worry about the less able students and their ability to follow a more didactic way of teaching,” she says.
Small-business owners are finding this time particularly challenging. Many of them have had to cease trading completely, without knowing when they’ll be able to reopen. Tracy and Giovanni Fontana are the owners of Swiit, an artisanal gelato shop, and ANZI, a home decor and gift store. “It’s an extremely difficult time for us, not being able to open,” explains Tracy. “The challenge for us right now is administrative – negotiating rent payments and finding out what government support is in place – as well as strategic. How do we move forward and pivot if necessary if this shutdown continues? Should we move into delivery?” A whole community of shops and enterprises have been affected by the shutdown. “We must try to be useful to other businesses by sharing information and ideas. I wonder how we will all survive during and after this crisis, but, hopefully, we’ll find the right solutions together,” she says.
One of the hardest-hit groups right now, however, are the freelancers. Most freelancers in Spain must make a minimum social security contribution of €286 (£256) every month, regardless of how much they earn, and with most freelancers having had all their work cancelled or postponed during this crisis, it can be incredibly tough. Karina Cova and her partner Marco are both freelancers living in Barcelona. “The worst thing about this crisis for us is that all the time and effort invested in our careers have gone from one day to the next. The ultimate issue here is time; when can we get back to work?” says Marco.
“It’s devastating to finally find work then have those projects postponed indefinitely. I don’t know how this crisis will play out in the entertainment industry or if I will even be needed after all this,” adds Karina.
“The longer we go on without working, the harder it will be to pick things back up. For us it simply means that without work, there’s no money, and without that, we can’t live,” says Marco.
The city’s transport system is currently running a limited timetable, so that it can provide enough services for those people unable to work from home. This primarily includes people with some of the most important jobs in the city right now: supermarket cashiers, cleaners, pharmacists and healthcare professionals.
Mariana Calleja is a doctor working on the frontline during this pandemic. “My main job right now is scanning those working in emergency services, identifying those with underlying health conditions and helping to prevent infections within the medical staff,” she says. “It’s most definitely a time of major uncertainty, and fear can cripple us if we let it. That won’t do anyone any good. At work, we’re vulnerable together. We try to remind ourselves that we’re doing our best to prevent the spread as much as possible, so that hospitals will not reach the point of collapse. I cope by trying to stay calm. When I go home, I rest, sometimes I cry, other days I sing or dance to energise myself. I also keep a journal, which helps me to get through all this. I want to believe that with more compassion, love and understanding, we will get through this.”
While most people are forced to stay at home to help combat the spread of the virus, local NGO Health Warriors goes out to collect food from takeaway restaurants that are still open and donate it to the city’s health workers in various hospitals across Barcelona.
The people of Spain and Barcelona are resilient, however, and have not let this lockdown affect their joyous spirit. Residents have taken it upon themselves to entertain each other during this difficult time, whether it’s musicians playing from their balconies, singing performances or a game of bingo, where numbers are shouted through a megaphone across the apartment blocks.
The one thing that has become a daily highlight and comfort in all this is the Aplauso Sanitario. At exactly 8pm every night, the whole country, not just the whole of Barcelona, erupts into claps and cheers, applauding the country’s healthcare workers who are working tirelessly to fight this battle. Originally a message spread through social media, the applause has become an important part of being in quarantine since the very first day of lockdown. Some days, the nightly applause explodes into group singing, performances or balcony dance parties, proof that this crisis will not keep Barcelonians down. As the government message states: Este virus lo paramos unidos (We will stop this virus together).