On the Front Lines of Corona Virus: Interviews from Italy and Spain
Citizen Truth’s William Bacha spoke to Italian and Spanish citizens about their personal experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.
When I walked into the grocery store this morning the front of the store was filled with all the rolls of toilet paper and paper towels that people had ordered for home delivery.
Practically nobody is outside and in the long lines at checkout counters pretty much everyone is wearing respirator equipped masks and surgical gloves. The lines extend beyond the stores. Since they’re only allowed to let a certain number of people in at a time lines stretch outside the blocks in front of grocery stores. It’s pretty much impossible to find soap.
Bars, restaurants and every store besides supermarkets and pharmacies are closed.
There’s almost nobody on the streets. It’s like a ghost town here in Santiago De Compostela, Spain. Some people might not get a paycheck for weeks and there is no doubt that the economic fallout from the extreme measures being taken by the government and the public at large is going to be enormous.
The rural La Rioja region is one of the epicenters of coronavirus cases in Spain, particularly the small village of Haro. On Friday the 13th, an elite Guardia Civil unit fitted with hazmat suits and full protective gear went door to door in the village, issuing orders of quarantine which will be enforced under penalty of strict fines. Similar measures have been taken throughout the rest of Spain and Italy.
The same day, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, declared a state of emergency for the next fifteen days. On March 22, Sánchez announced that the state of emergency would be extended for an additional fifteen days.
Soldiers from the Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME) an elite military special forces unit, have filled the streets and police stand on corners stopping people to see where they are going. I personally have already been ordered home by the police after I tried to take a walk outside and it’s not uncommon to be asked for receipts or other items to prove that you were at the grocery store or pharmacy.
People are going into panic mode and everyone is in quarantine. Everything has been shut down.
Hard times in Italy
Henry is an English teacher living in Treviso, Italy, a city which is one of the so-called red zones of coronavirus confinement in the country.
According to him, “travel is absolutely restricted here. You’re not allowed to leave your house. There’s nobody like waiting at your door to arrest you or anything but whenever you leave your house you’re supposed to bring something called a ‘Autocertificazione’ which is like you write a piece of paper saying ‘I’m going to the supermarket or I’m going to the pharmacy.’ So, if the police stop you, they’re going to ask you for your ‘Autocertificazione.’ You have to give them a piece of paper that says you went to the supermarket or whatever. They might even ask you for your receipt. They want to see proof of everything. If you don’t have proof of a valid reason to be outside you can be fined up to 200 euros.” Here in Spain the minimum fine is 300 euros and the maximum fine is 1000 euros.
Despite the seemingly draconian actions taking place, Henry says that “although there are some drastic measures being instated like telling people to stay home and basically halting all economic activity, I do think it’s necessary. The Italian government has been really decisive. And this is a government that is historically dysfunctional. In the past couple weeks, they have really shown their strengths and they’re really taking this matter very seriously and doing everything that they can to inhibit the spread of this virus”
The situation in and around grocery stores in Spain and Italy is fairly similar. “All stores are closed. So now restaurants are closed, cafés are closed, theatres are closed… In supermarkets there’s only allowed to be two people at a time, so you have to line up outside.”
Some regions of Italy have experienced a similar military presence to what we are experiencing here in Spain, but Henry said that “in Treviso there’s no military presence or anything like that. There’s only a handful of towns in Lombardy and Milan that were actually quarantined, no one is allowed to leave, no one’s allowed to enter, people in hazmat suits and things like that… But since it is very contagious, I completely understand.”
Despite the enormous financial impact this could have on Italy’s economy, Henry said that “The people that I know are quite happy with the measures that have been taken, even though they are quite extreme. They believe that putting people’s lives and health above the economy is the right step to take. It’s just an unfortunate truth that must be accepted. There’s no choice to be made here. We must stay at home. It’s not like you can do anything anyway. You can’t go to the bar; you can’t see a show or a movie.”
Henry has already begun to experience some of the economic fallout from the situation. He told Citizen Truth, “I’m not working whatsoever. I have no money coming in.” Almost every single business in Italy is suffering.
Obviously, the Italian government is going to be forced to address this issue. Henry explained that “we’re waiting to hear more from the government about how they’re going to deal with this. I’m not alone in this. There are a whole lot of other people who are financially stagnant this month. The government is going to have to help us in same way shape or form. Either by lowering taxes for this year or by giving us some sort of fiscal advantage. We don’t know what they’re going to do yet though.”
In Spain, every night at 8:00 pm everyone opens their windows or goes out on their balcony to applaud and cheer the medical professionals working to keep us all safe. In Italy people also sing every night and have taken to writing “Tutto andra bene” in their windows. This phrase means “Everything will be fine, or everything will go well.”
Henry told Citizen Truth, “I can’t wait for the day when this is all over and I can just go out to my usual spot, and just get a nice sandwich with some wine and I’ll probably make it a double this time. I just can’t wait.”
The deserted atmosphere in the streets is one of the first things that hits you if you step outside on a sanctioned visit to buy food. Henry explained that, “usually there’s a bunch of people walking around but right now if you go outside the streets are absolutely deserted. There’s nobody. And it’s a really eerie feeling. You just know that something’s not right.”
One of Henry’s students is the head of surgery operations in the province of Treviso. Essentially, he schedules all the surgeries and makes sure that beds aren’t overbooked. According to Henry, his student said “It’s an absolute disaster. If things keep going the way they are, we’ll run out of beds.”
In terms of changes to his day to day life, Henry told Citizen Truth, “I honestly haven’t been watching T.V. that much because I’ve been going crazy with all this coronavirus stuff. It’s been driving me nuts. And I’ve kind of disconnected in that way.”
Just like in Spain, the absence of soap and disinfectants is a huge problem in Italy. Henry thinks that “Maybe hand sanitizer should be free. We paid 40 euros for one single small bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s insane. And at this point it’s completely sold out. You can’t find it anywhere.”
Though supermarkets are running out of pasta here in Santiago de Compostela, Henry said “That won’t happen here. There will always be pasta in Italy. And as long as there’s pasta there’s hope.”
During the quarantine, Henry advises people to “take advantage of your time at home. I’m trying to stay mentally and physically active. Play guitar, read, listen to music and exercise if I can. In times like these you have to do everything that you can to avoid cabin fever.”
An American in Madrid
Wes is an English teacher in Madrid. He thinks the situation is serious, but also that “the media is making us scared and we need to be a little scared but not end of the world scared.”
He told Citizen Truth, “I haven’t been out in the last four days. I’m staying inside for my safety and for the safety of others. What I don’t want is to be asymptomatic and accidentally pass the virus on to someone else. I definitely don’t want to make anyone else sick.”
Like Henry, Wes doesn’t believe that the government is overreacting in its attempts to fight the disease. “I’m all for freedom of choice but when it gets to this level, when people are going to be going out and making more people sick and there’s the potential that things are doing to overload the system. I understand why there’s some need to regulate things a little bit. As much as everyone wants to live their life freely and do whatever they want, it’s kind of irresponsible to do that right now if everyone is getting sick. I’m kind of getting crazy a little bit right now too but I think if you at least reduce the amount of contact you have with other people you reduce the chance of contributing to the spread of this virus.”
Economic Trouble in Valencia
John works in Valencia, which recently cancelled its yearly Las Fallas event, one of the largest festivals in Spain, due to fears related to Coronavirus.”
Despite Spain’s massive response to the threat of Coronavirus, John believes it’s too little too late. “Maybe we’ve taken a few measures a few days earlier in the timeline than Italy. But it’s not going to make a big difference.”
Spain and Italy are both trying to figure out how to address the economic fallout from Coronavirus and the ensuing quarantine. There has been talk of providing economic assistance to those not receiving an income during the quarantine and also discussion of ways to address the situation with regards to rent and mortgages. John told Citizen Truth, “If I don’t have to pay rent, I’ll be ok for a couple of months. If I have to pay rent, I won’t be ok for very long.”
The financial situation in Valencia is more precarious than in other regions of the country, particularly for teachers paid by the regional government. John said that “A lot of people have already had to ask for loans and stuff because some of the teachers already hadn’t been paid for a couple months. I didn’t get paid for one month, but some people haven’t gotten paid for four months. So, let’s see what happens when April rolls around because the Valencian government is already pretty bad at managing their funds and now they have all this other stuff to worry about.”
Despite the tremendous financial strain the situation is putting on the government and the economy in general, John is even more concerned about the possible physical toll the disease might have.“There’s going to be a lot of people dying. I wouldn’t be surprised if tens of thousands of people die in the United States. Maybe it won’t be as bad here.”
As a result, he fully supports the actions being taken by the Spanish government and other governments around the world. “None of the measures that are being taken are an overreaction. I originally thought that but after reading more about this and seeing the numbers, I’m realizing that the world is going to be overwhelmed quickly. And it’s going to last a long time.”
He also cautions that it’s very likely that “These types of things are going to keep happening. Especially when we have these cities with millions of people living so close together in places that don’t have adequate sanitation and waste removal services.” Governments need to take measures to ensure that crises like this don’t happen again, and need to update existing protocols and procedures in order to prepare for these events in the future.
As we sit in quarantine and our daily lives and routines drag to a halt, different questions are on everyone’s minds. How long will this last? What are the long-term economic effects going to be? Will anything ever be normal again? The answers to these questions and many others rest in a hazy future, filled with uncertainty and confusion.