What It’s Like to Be Sick and in Quarantine at the Epicenter of Spain’s Coronavirus Outbreak

People who were locked up at home applauded from their windows to pay tribute to the health workers treating Covid-19 disease in Madrid on March 28, 2020, during a national shutdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic.

People who were locked up at home applauded from their windows to pay tribute to the health workers dealing with the covid-19 disease in Madrid, on March 28, 2020, during a national shutdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic.
Photo: Getty

We have been unable to go out since March 14, when Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced the state of emergency and national closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But every night at 8 p.m., people all over Spain go to their windows, balconies or terraces. The sound starts softly, but immediately builds up and extends over neighborhoods and cities. People are applauding for the health workers in the Spanish hospitals, for the supermarket workers stocking the shelves, for the truck drivers delivering food and supplies, for the pharmacists opening the store, for everyone helping the country navigate the worst public health crisis in a generation.

Like many of you, I never thought the coronavirus outbreak would reach my corner of the world. I am originally from Texas but have lived in Madrid since 2016. Despite terrifying headlines from China and Italy, everything seemed normal in recent months. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email from my boss preparing to go to work saying that we would be working at home immediately until further notice. Soon after, the Spanish authorities began begging people to stay at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Hospitals started to see more and more cases. It was here.

I bought groceries for two weeks and locked myself in my 387-square-foot apartment. While I wasn’t concerned about Covid-19 at the time – I’m young, healthy, and go to the gym three or four times a week – I was careful. I washed my hands so often that they started to crack because they were so dry, and I made a huge effort not to touch my face. It was not enough.

It was March 15, a day after the government-ordered detention, when my throat started to bother me. It felt dry and hurt a little. A few hours later my chest started to ache, as if it was under too much pressure, and it hurt when I inhaled. Since I had written so much about the outbreak, I knew the symptoms. I frantically sent a message to my family in the US saying I was scared, but they said I shouldn’t worry. It’s probably just fear, they told me, or maybe it’s because of something you’ve eaten.

On March 16 I woke up feeling that a truck had run over me. I had a throbbing headache, sore throat, body aches and I couldn’t stop sweating like I had a fever. I sent two friends, who happen to be doctors, to get their advice. One of them treats coronavirus patients in a regional hospital in Madrid. She told me it is possible that I have been infected.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said via WhatsApp. “There are usually no problems with young people. If you get short of breath at any time, go to the hospital.”

Shortness of breath is considered a distress signal for covid-19 by the doctor U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other warning signs include difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure on your chest, and confusion. The CDC recommends that people who experience warning signs seek medical attention immediately. In the end, both of my friends told me to take acetaminophen (Tylenol in the U.S.) every eight hours, rest, and under no circumstances leave my home.

The idea that I could have covid-19 was disturbing, but one thing comforted me: I was in Spain and whatever happened, I would be tested and treated for free. Unlike in the United States – true patients have to pay their share for treatment – Spain has a public health care system that provides free universal care for everyone. This includes Covid-19 treatment and hospitalization. The state also offers paid leave for workers who have fallen ill with covid-19 or who have become isolated as a preventive measure and who pay these workers 75 percent of their salary while in that situation.

Public health care is paid for by social security payments made by all employers and the self-employed. People can also purchase private health insurance, which works alongside the public system usually costs about € 50- € 200 ($ 55- $ 220) per month, for access to a specific and faster treatment.

On March 17, the third day I was sick, I called the coronavirus hotline number that local officials in Madrid shared to report my symptoms. At first I was not sure if someone would answer me. The news was filled with stories of people on hold for a long time or not getting an answer. Government officials claimed to solve this problem by hiring more staff to answer the phones. In my case, that was true. The operator cordially recorded my national ID number and confirmed my address before asking me about my symptoms.

The first thing she asked was if I had a fever one of the most common symptoms for Covid-19, along with coughing and shortness of breath. Unfortunately I couldn’t confirm a fever because I didn’t have a thermometer at home. At the time, there were not many thermometers in the pharmacies in Madrid, or hand sanitizer or face masks. I had been trying to get the first for days, but to no avail.

So I told the operator that I did not know, but I thought I had a fever overnight because I woke up sweating, felt like I was burning and had chills. I also told her that I had been living with a terrible headache for two days that didn’t go away with painkillers, a mild cough, and a sore throat.

Based on everything I told her, she said it was likely I had a fever. Then she went on to open a case about me and told me not to leave my house if I could avoid it, essentially telling me to quarantine. She added that Madrid’s Regional Medical Emergency Services Department (SUMMA in Spanish, the equivalent of emergency medical services) would call me for follow-up within 24 to 48 hours.

I had such a huge headache when I called that I honestly can’t remember whether I asked her about a coronavirus test, but since she told me to stay at home I assumed I probably wouldn’t get one. At the time, only seriously ill patients received tests, which are still scarce in Spain. The government has been trying to get faster tests in recent days. It bought hundreds of thousands from a Chinese manufacturer, but later she had to return because they gave inaccurate results.

This was one of many missteps by the government, including admitting one of the vice-presidents of the government, Pablo Iglesias, to attend a cabinet meeting, even though he would be quarantined because his wife was covid- 19 had. Another example: the government initially allowed hair salons to remain open during the shutdown, before being quickly removed from the list of allowed activities. On some occasions, these actions have prompted citizens to collectively go to their balconies, not to flip, but to knock pots and pans to express their disapproval of the government.

Being a suspect, although unconfirmed, coronavirus case, I had even more limitations than the rest of the people in Spain. below current lockdown measuresindividuals are only allowed to leave their home to perform certain tasks. These include buying food and medicines, going to work when they are unable to work remotely, visiting health centers, helping the elderly and others in need, going to financial institutions or leaving the house due to unforeseen, extreme circumstances.

All of the above activities should be performed on their own, although the law does allow for people with disabilities or other justified reasons to be accompanied.

However, I couldn’t do those things because I was sick. Even if it wasn’t covid-19, I couldn’t be sure without a test, and I didn’t want to risk getting someone else sick. Considering I live alone, these were complicated things, although I wasn’t too concerned about it. After all, I had food in my fridge for at least two weeks.

Since I was too weak to do much other than go from my couch to my bed and prepare at least two meals a day (during all this I was just not hungry), I did what everyone else in Spain did: watch the news and read the news. In a way, this was good and bad. I felt better knowing what was going on in Spain and the world, but besides talking about the Covid-19 pandemic, the only other thing people were talking about was the economy.

Learning about sky-high job losses not only in Spain but around the world was not the easiest to hear while feeling like a zombie. Nonetheless, I was comforted by the fact that Spain was taking steps to help workers whose companies were likely to be hit by the crisis, including my own, and also to strengthen health care to respond to the wave in an emergency.

As part of one € 200 billion ($ 223 billion) package of economic aidthe state would pay the redundant workers 70 percent of the regulated base salary for the first six months and 50 percent of the base salary thereafter. Frankly, this isn’t much: workers made redundant will be received Average € 860 a month, or about $ 960, but it’s something. For the context, the cost of living is lower here, and that would at least allow me to pay my rent and basic needs for a while. (Since I only write for Gizmodo in the United States on weekends, I have another primary job in Spain during the week that I refer to.)

Other measures included banning energy, natural gas and water companies from providing services to vulnerable individuals and people who saw their monthly income fall as a result of the crisis in April, as well as issuing a moratorium on mortgage payments.

Spain also increased its health care. Shortly after the country declared a state of emergency, it announced it would enlist 50,000 new medical workers, including residents, retired physicians and medical students in their last school year. It also allowed regional governments to use private health care resources, such as services, equipment and hospitals, to treat coronavirus patients.

Five days after my illness, I still felt sick, but I had no severe covid-19 symptoms. I actually felt like I just had a bad flu. After not hearing from Madrid’s emergency services for 48 hours, I called back the number provided by the local government on March 19. An operator confirmed that my case was still open and told me to wait for a call. The emergency services department was flooded, she said.

This meant I still had no test. I still had no idea if I had the flu or Covid-19. And even though I wasn’t upset because I knew there were people worse off than me who needed more help, I started to worry.

Ever since the first day I felt sick, I prayed never to be short of breath, so I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. The Madrid region had become the epicenter of the Spanish coronavirus outbreak. Hospitals were overwhelmed and the number of deaths increased daily. To date, the area accounts for 27,509 of Spain’s 94,417 confirmed cases, more than any other region. Deaths in Madrid (3,603) make up 43 percent of the country’s total (8,189). Spain has the third highest number of Covid-19 cases worldwide. It is only surpassed by Italy (101,739) and the United States (165,874).

In addition, most of the stories I read or saw on TV spoke about the lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals, which is unfortunately a common problem in many countries with covid-19 outbreaks. Based on this, I didn’t want to go to a hospital if I could help, although I knew I should if I had breathing problems. Every new day was a relief because I had endured another day without breathing problems, but also another day to worry about breathing all over again.

On March 20, I started to feel a little better. It was my sixth day of illness and the beginning of what I hoped was recovery. My legs hurt from not moving for so long, so I decide to walk to my patio, which is bigger than my house, and walk in circles to stretch them. I almost felt normal, as if I could walk outside on the street. The air was cool and my legs felt tingling. I started to take a deep breath and wanted to reassure myself that my lungs were okay, that I would be okay.

For the next few days, now that I was brighter and had a stronger body, I started thinking about what I learned from being sick of what could be coronavirus. It was terrible, but people also did great things.

First, people went out of their way to support their loved ones during the crisis. Even though I was separated by distance and walls from my friends in Madrid and separated by the Atlantic from my family and friends in the US, I never felt alone. And I always felt I had help within reach.

This immediately became clear when I slowly started to tell my circle of friends in Spain that I was sick. They started checking me immediately every day via WhatsApp or video chat. If I didn’t answer, which usually happened when I was sleeping, they called me to make sure, in their words, that I wasn’t “unconscious.” In fact, a group of friends whom I consider to be my adopted family told me not to worry about groceries, that they would buy them and leave them at my door.

On March 21 I had a bad day. I couldn’t think clearly and just lost my breath just walking through my house. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw that my face was pale and that I looked worse than in days. For some reason, it took more effort to breathe that day. When I told one of my adopted family members how I was feeling, she immediately called me and told me she would sleep on the phone next to her if I got worse and had to call her.

In addition, one of my friends, who was dealing non-stop with coronavirus patients at the Madrid Regional Hospital, took time out during that first week to text me multiple times asking how I was feeling and always replying when I asked her asked questions. On March 22, I told her that I was out of breath the previous day, but that I was feeling better. She immediately texted me back and told me to please let her know if that had happened again.

“They let me take to the street. I grab a mask and some gloves and go [check on you]”she wrote.” When you catch your breath, I will go. Please tell me. “

The other great thing that emerged from the crisis was the unshakable solidarity of people across Spain. Nobody wants to hear that they should stay at home, especially the lively and social Spanish people, as my years here have taught me. Nevertheless, the majority of the public unambiguously understands that they must make a sacrifice and stay indoors. They do it to control this disease, prevent healthcare from collapsing and protect older and most vulnerable people. Everyone gets it.

In a way, it feels like lowering the infection curve is a shared mission that everyone is working on. Some have organized online music festivals on Instagram with artists playing and singing from their homes to keep people entertained during the lockdown. Others help people practice at home, like this fitness instructor in an apartment complex in Seville. In Palma de Mallorca, the police went to serenade a neighborhood with a guitar on the street,

The Covid-19 crisis has also encouraged people to think less about themselves and more about how they can help others. Where I live, the young neighbors on the first floor hung on a sign on the front door offering to go to the pharmacy or grocery store in our building. People have also started make face masks at home to donate to the police and others.

50 volunteers, including the self-employed and those made redundant, worked in the Madrid temporary hospital in the Ifema Congress Center. helped install the oxygen supply system. There is no shortage of these stories in Spain, of people who do their best to help others in the circumstances. When I find out, I often get into tears.

As of this writing on March 27, I have been sick for almost two weeks, but I am happy to say that I feel better. I am less tired and do not get a fever or chills. I feel almost normal again. During these two weeks, the Spanish government extended the state of emergency and closure to April 11, and also ordered all non-essential workers to stay at home. It too recently announced New measures banning the expulsion of vulnerable persons for six months are creating government bonds at an interest rate of 0% for people unable to pay their rent due to the crisis and, among other things, making it possible for domestic workers to receive unemployment benefits.

To date, I have not been tested for Covid-19 and an emergency worker has not called me.

Not everything has been perfect. For example, it is not easy to have groceries delivered during the lock times. All delivery services are slammed and it can take days to even guarantee delivery. It wasn’t that I was able to go to the store myself to buy food (although I ended up getting a delivery). I also have a big problem throwing away my trash, which I put on a corner of the patio. Sick people’s trash should be thrown in regular bins, but I can’t go outside. So what am I supposed to do? I’m still debating and my bags keep getting full.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that I am one of the lucky ones in this worldwide fight. I didn’t have to worry about access to medical care or no income during this crisis. And I have also seen the incredible acts of solidarity and kindness that humanity is capable of. Spain is my adopted second country and while it is far from perfect – the government has undoubtedly made many mistakes in tackling the crisis and the country is still facing huge challenges – it is fighting everything it has.

Nevertheless, I am also an American citizen and I love my homeland and its people. That said, the response to the crisis in the United States is worrying and it scares the safety of my loved ones. This is what I see from across the Atlantic.

Unlike Spain, there is no nationwide cutoff in the United States and no guarantee to treat anyone who becomes infected with covid-19. A few days ago I saw people in Austin, Texas, where I went to college, flock to Barton Springs Pool and sit side by side without concern for social distance measures. Shortly after, the nation registered the death of the first teenager, a 17-year-old from California, as a result of complications with Covid-19. The teenager was initially refused care because he had no health insurance.

Many things can and must be done during this crisis, and the measures will undoubtedly differ from country to country. While we cannot control what our governments are doing to address this situation, there is one thing we can all do to help wherever we are: stay at home. I know it will be a great sacrifice for many, and some people have circumstances that prevent them from doing this, but it is extremely important.

I say this because I love America and I don’t want hundreds of thousands to die. To prevent this, Spain has taught me that it is important that everyone does their bit. It is the only way we can protect others, and the only way to make sure we can hug our loved ones again after this is over.

As for Spain, we keep it together. We understand this is a fight we’re all in, and we’re not giving up. We stay indoors no matter how long it takes, and come out every day to share a short moment together until it’s safe for everyone again. It will be at 8 pm. The rumble starts softly and then echoes around the country, as always.


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