Lessons from the Heart of the Pandemic

by Isaias Fanlo. March 16, 2020.

I was not supposed to be stuck in Barcelona right now. At this moment, I should be flying to the United States, my second home, to prepare my dissertation defense at the University of Chicago. The chain of events of the last days has been dramatic and fast: flight was canceled, borders closed, state of emergency declared in Spain. And here I am, like my fellow citizens, under mandatory lockdown in my apartment.

All this happened because of a small virus, highly contagious, that has become, in its unstoppable spread, a powerful symbol of our globalized world. Its name, COVID-19, might make you think of an evil robot in a sci-fi movie.

I have been in touch with my friends at the other side of the Atlantic. I share with them images of Barcelona, turned into a ghost town. Abandoned monuments, deserted beaches. Doves and seagulls scavenging for food in the empty streets and avenues. For us locals, it had always been annoying to pass by the Sagrada Familia or Paseo de Gracia, unpleasantly packed with tourists. But now we have discovered that the emptiness surrounding the Gaudí temple can be much more disquieting. My American friends tell me that they can’t believe it, and my answer is always the same: “well, you better do.”

Ten days ago, everything seemed pretty normal here: the streets were crowded as they always are when the spring weather awakens, bars and restaurants working in full motion. Ten days ago, I was in the Camp Nou soccer stadium, watching Lionel Messi and F. C. Barcelona play against Real Sociedad. Yes, we knew about the virus, but we only had a few dozen cases in the country. It seemed a distant threat, almost irrelevant, definitely exotic. And yet, we already had it among us.

I don’t want to sound discouraging. I am writing this because I don’t want people to make the same mistakes we made. This virus travels more rapidly than what our imagination can grasp. Once it hits a territory, it spreads easily, from organism to organism. In Spain, we seem to be, approximately, ten days ahead of the United States in this pandemic. The sooner citizens start taking it seriously, the better.

Please, understand this: you need to stay home. The only way to prevent contagion is by restricting your direct interaction to your immediate family: at most, four individuals. The measure of avoiding gatherings of more than 50 people is insufficient to prevent the spread of the virus. Since mandatory confinement is coming your way, why not get an early start to increase your odds of weathering the storm? The number of reported cases are probably the tip of the iceberg, considering the lack of testing availability, and that most people carrying the virus are asymptomatic or showing very mild symptoms. We have already learned that the virus is faster than the responses of the governments. Here, in Spain, the president is already acknowledging that he should have acted faster and that measures should have been stricter.

If you are under 70, have strong lungs and are not immunodeficient, you probably won’t die of this virus, even if you catch it. However, this does not necessarily make you resistant to COVID-19. Younger and healthier men and women have found themselves in critical situations. Also, even if you stay moderately healthy, you can still be a deadly agent of contagion for more vulnerable citizens. It is time to show that we, as a society, can respond with generosity and solidarity to this pandemic.

Under extreme situations, communities reveal their worst, but also their best. You have already witnessed the greed of those hoarding toilet paper and other necessary goods, or even trying to benefit from the crisis by reselling hand sanitizers. But, believe it or not, you are starting to see plenty of positive responses to this crisis. In Spain, musicians are offering live concerts via streaming in their social media; playwrights are sharing micro-plays that they have written about these strange times; we’re having online festivals; and theatres such as Barcelona’s Teatre Lliure have launched The Show Must Go On, a special set of online activities and broadcasts of recent productions. Neighbors are coordinating themselves to help the elder members of our communities, offering to get them groceries and medicines, so they don’t have to leave their homes. And every evening, at 8 pm, we all gather at windows, balconies and terraces to give our doctors and nurses a heartfelt ovation to thank them for their indispensable service. It is, believe me, an emotional moment of hope, a celebration of kinship, necessary to carry on.

It might take weeks, even months, but this shall pass. In the subsequent economic crisis caused by the lockdowns, every nation will have to commit to protect their own citizens. It feels that the world after COVID-19 cannot be like the one we lived in before the impact of the virus. It’s also in our hands to make this new world better than the one we lived in just weeks ago. We will see how it unfolds. Right now, it’s all about surviving and protecting our communities.

As for me, I’m grateful that we have Internet. I will be able to defend my dissertation online from Barcelona. No graduation ceremony in June, though: exceptional measures for exceptional times. But I will eventually make it back to Chicago, and that helps me stay sane as days pass slowly within the walls of my apartment, here in Spain. I am grateful for books, films and TV series: they have always been wonderful ways to travel. When I read, I am a free man, even if I find myself under mandatory lockdown.

Remember, you are just a few days behind us in this. You still have the chance to act before we did, and every day counts. Stay home. Rediscover the pleasure of reading. Reinvent yourselves. Reach out to those you love. Display resilience. Plant the seeds of a better future.

And stay safe.