What It’s Like To Be Sick And In Quarantine At The Epicentre Of Spain’s Coronavirus Outbreak

What It’s Like To Be Sick And In Quarantine At The Epicentre Of Spain’s Coronavirus Outbreak

We haven’t been able to go outside since March 14, when Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced a state of emergency and national lockdown because of the covid-19 pandemic. But every evening at 8 p.m., people all over Spain go to their windows, balconies, or terraces. The noise begins softly, but builds up immediately and stretches throughout neighbourhoods and cities. People are clapping for the healthcare workers in Spain’s strained hospitals, for the grocery store workers that stock the shelves, for the truck drivers that deliver food and supplies, for the pharmacists that open up shop, for everyone who’s 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’m originally from Texas but have been living in Madrid since 2016. Despite the terrifying headlines coming out of China and Italy, everything seemed to be normal these past few months. Then, a few weeks ago, I got an email from my boss, while I was getting ready to go to work, that said that we would begin working from home immediately until further notice. Shortly after, Spanish authorities began pleading with people to stay at home to avoid spreading covid-19. Hospitals were beginning to see more and more cases. It was here.

I bought two weeks’ worth of groceries and locked myself in my 387-square-foot (36 square metre) apartment. Although I wasn’t worried about getting covid-19 at the time—I’m young, healthy, and go to the gym three or four times a week—I was being careful. I washed my hands so frequently that they started to crack because they were so dry, and I made a Herculean effort not to touch my face. It was not enough.

It was March 15, one day after the government-ordered lock down, when my throat started to bother me. It felt dry and ached a bit. A few hours later, my chest started to hurt, like there was too much pressure on it, and it hurt when I breathed in. Given that I’d been writing so much about the outbreak, I was familiar with the symptoms. I frantically messaged my family in the U.S., telling them that I was scared, but they told me not to worry. It’s probably just anxiety, they told me, or maybe it’s gas from something you ate.

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

“Don’t be scared,” she said via WhatsApp. “In young people there aren’t usually problems. If at any point you experience shortness of breath, go to the hospital.”

Shortness of breath is considered to be a covid-19 emergency warning sign by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Other warning signs include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in your chest and confusion. The CDC recommends that people experiencing warning signs seek medical attention immediately. In the end, both of my friends told me to take paracetamol (Tylenol in U.S.) every eight hours, rest and not to leave my house under any circumstances.

The idea that I might have covid-19 was worrying, but one thing gave me comfort: I was in Spain, and no matter what, I would receive testing and treatment free of charge. Unlike in the U.S.—where patients have to pay their share for treatment—Spain has a public healthcare system that provides free universal care for all. This includes covid-19 treatment and hospitalisation. The state also provides paid leave for employees who have fallen ill with covid-19 or who have gone into isolation as a preventative measure and pays these workers 75 per cent of their salary while they’re in that situation.

The public healthcare system is paid for by social security payments, which are made by all employers and self-employed workers. People can also buy private health insurance, which works alongside the public system and typically runs at about €50-€200 ($US55 ($89)-$US220 ($358)) per month, for access to specific and faster treatment.

On March 17, the third day I was sick, I called the coronavirus hotline number local officials in Madrid were giving out to report my symptoms. Initially I wasn’t sure if anyone would answer me. The news had been filled with stories of people waiting on hold for a long time or not receiving a reply. Government officials claimed to fix this problem by hiring more staff to answer the phones. In my case, it was true. The operator cordially jotted down my national ID number and confirmed my address before asking me about my symptoms.

The first thing she asked was whether I had a fever, which is one of the most common symptoms for covid-19, along with a cough and shortness of breath. I unfortunately couldn’t confirm a fever because I didn’t have a thermometer at home. There weren’t a lot of thermometers in Madrid pharmacies at the moment, or hand sanitizer or face masks. I had been trying to get the former for days to no avail.

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

Based on everything I told her, she said that it was probable that I had had fever. She then proceeded to open a case on me and told me not to leave my house if I could avoid it, essentially telling me to quarantine. She added that the Madrid Regional Medical Urgent Services unit (SUMMA in Spanish, the equivalent of emergency medical services) would call me in 24 to 48 hours to follow up.

I had such a huge headache when I called that I honestly can’t remember if I asked her about a coronavirus test, but since she told me to stay at home, I assumed that I probably wouldn’t get one. At that time, only severely ill patients were getting tests, which continue to be in short supply in Spain. In recent days, the government has tried to obtain more rapid tests. It bought hundreds of thousands from a Chinese manufacturer, but later had to return them because they were providing inaccurate results.

This has been one of the government’s many missteps, which included allowing one of the government’s vice presidents, Pablo Iglesias, to attend a cabinet meeting even though he was supposed to be quarantined because his wife had covid-19. In another example, the government initially allowed hair salons to remain open during the lockdown, before quickly removing them from the list of permitted activities. On some occasions, these actions have spurred citizens to collectively go to their balconies, not to clap, but to bang pots and pans to voice their disapproval of the government.

Being a suspected, although unconfirmed, coronavirus case meant that I had even more restrictions than the rest of people in Spain. Under current lockdown measures, individuals are only allowed to leave their homes to carry out certain tasks. These include buying food and medicine, going to work if they cannot work remotely, visiting healthcare centres, helping the elderly and others in need, going to financial institutions or leaving home due to unforeseen, extreme circumstances.

All of the activities above must be carried out alone, although the law does allow people with disabilities or other justified reasons to be accompanied.

However, I couldn’t do any of 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 anyone else sick. Considering that I live alone, this complicated things, although I wasn’t too worried about it. After all, I had at least two weeks of food in my fridge.

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

Learning about skyrocketing job losses, not just in Spain but across the world, wasn’t the easiest thing to hear while I was feeling like a zombie. Nonetheless, I was comforted by the fact that Spain was taking measures to help workers whose companies would probably be affected by the crisis, including my own, and also reinforcing the healthcare system in order to respond to the surge in cases.

As part of a €200 billion ($US223 ($362) billion) economic relief package, the state would pay furloughed workers 70 per cent of the regulated base salary during the first six months and 50 per cent of the base after. Honestly, this isn’t much—furloughed workers will receive €860 on average per month at first, or about $US960 ($1,560)—but it’s something. For context, the cost of living is lower here, and this would at least let me pay for my rent and basic necessities for a while. (Since I only write for U.S.-based Gizmodo on the weekends, I do have another primary job during the week in Spain, which is the one that I’m referring to.)

Other measures included prohibiting energy, natural gas, and water companies from cutting off services in April for vulnerable individuals and people who saw their monthly incomes fall because of the crisis, as well as issuing a moratorium on mortgage payments.

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

Five days into my illness, I still felt sick, but I wasn’t experiencing serious covid-19 symptoms. I did in fact feel like I just had a nasty flu. After not hearing from Madrid emergency services for 48 hours, on March 19, I called back the number given out by the local government. An operator confirmed that my case was still open and told me to continue waiting for a call. The emergency services unit was swamped, she said.

This meant that I still had no test. I still had no clue as to whether I had the flu or covid-19. And although I wasn’t mad because I knew there were people worse off than me that needed more help, I started to get worried.

Since the first day I felt sick, I had been praying to never have shortness of breath so I wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. The Madrid region had become the epicentre of Spain’s coronavirus outbreak. The hospitals were overwhelmed, and the number of dead was increasing 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 per cent 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 U.S. (165,874).

In addition, the majority of stories that I read or saw on TV talked about the lack of personal protective equipment at 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 it, though I knew I would have to if I began to have trouble breathing. Every new day was a relief because I had gotten through another day without breathing problems, but also another day to start worrying about breathing all over again.

On March 20, I began to feel a little bit 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 out to my patio, which is bigger than my house, and walk in circles to stretch them out. It made me feel almost normal, like I could be walking outside on the city streets. The air was cool and my legs felt tingly. I began taking deep breaths of fresh air, eager to reassure myself that my lungs were fine, that I was going to be fine.

Over the next few days, now with a clearer mind and a stronger body, I started thinking about what I learned from being sick from what might be coronavirus. It was horrible, but people were also doing wonderful things.

For one, people were going above and beyond 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 Ocean from my family and friends in the U.S., I never felt alone. And I always felt that I had help within my reach.

This became immediately apparent when I slowly began to tell my circle of friends in Spain that I was sick. They immediately began checking on me every day via WhatsApp or video chat. If I didn’t answer, which usually happened when I was sleeping, they would call me to make sure, in their words, that I wasn’t “unconscious somewhere.” One group of friends, who I consider to be my adopted family, even 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 straight and lost my breath from just walking around my house. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw that my face was pale, and that I looked worse than I had 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 that she would sleep with the phone next to her in case I got worse and needed to call her.

In addition, throughout that first week, one of my doctor friends, who was dealing with coronavirus patients nonstop at her Madrid regional hospital, carved out time to text me multiple times to ask how I was feeling, and always answered when I asked her questions. On March 22, I told her that I had lost my breath the previous day, but that I felt better. She texted me back immediately, telling me to please let her know if that happened again.

“They let me go out into the street. I’ll grab a mask and some gloves and go [check on you],” she wrote. “If you lose your breath again, I’ll go. Please tell me.”

The other great thing that arose from the crisis was the unwavering solidarity from people all across Spain. No one wants to be told that they have to stay home, especially not the vibrant and social Spanish people, as my years here have taught me. Nonetheless, the majority of the public unequivocally understands that they have to make a sacrifice and stay inside. They do it to help contain this disease, keep the healthcare system from collapsing and protect the elderly and most vulnerable. Everyone gets it.

In a sense, it feels like bringing down the infection curve is a shared mission that everyone is working on. Some have hosted online music festivals on Instagram with artists playing and singing from their homes to entertain people during the lockdown. Others are helping people exercise at home, like this fitness instructor in an apartment complex in Sevilla. In Palma de Mallorca, the police went to serenade a neighbourhood with a guitar in 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 neighbours on the first floor posted on a sign on the front door in which they offered to go to the pharmacy or grocery store for the elderly in our building. People have also begun making face masks at home to donate to the police and others.

At Madrid’s provisional hospital at the Ifema convention centre, 50 volunteers, who included self-employed workers and people that had been laid off, helped install the oxygen supply system. There is no shortage of these stories in Spain, of people doing their best to help others given the circumstances. Finding out about them often brings me to tears.

As I write this on March 27, I’ve been sick for close to two weeks, but I’m happy to say that I feel better. I’m less tired and don’t get fevers or chills. I feel almost normal again. During these two weeks, the Spanish government has extended the state of emergency and lockdown to April 11 and also ordered all non-essential workers to stay home. It also recently announced new measures that prohibit evictions of vulnerable people for six months, create state loans at 0% interest for people that cannot pay their rent because of the crisis and allow domestic workers to receive unemployment benefits, among others.

To date, I have not been tested for covid-19 and an emergency services rep hasn’t called me.

Not everything has been perfect. For instance, trying to get groceries delivered during lockdown times is no easy feat. All the delivery services are slammed, and it can take days to even secure a delivery. It wasn’t like I could go out to the store myself to buy food (although I eventually got a delivery). I also have a big problem with how to throw out my trash, which I’ve put on a corner of the patio. The trash of sick people is supposed to be thrown out in the regular bins, but I can’t go outside. So what do I do? I’m still debating, and my bags keep filling up.

Despite this, I have no doubt that I’m one of the lucky ones in this global fight. I haven’t had to worry about access to medical care or not having any income during this crisis. And I’ve also seen the incredible acts of solidarity and kindness that humanity is capable of. Spain is my adopted second country, and although it’s far from perfect—the government has undoubtedly made many mistakes in handling the crisis and the country is still facing tremendous challenges—it is fighting with everything it has.

Nonetheless, I am also a U.S. citizen, and I love my home country and its people. Having said that, the response to the crisis in the U.S. is worrying, and it makes me fear for the safety of my loved ones. This is what I’m seeing from across the Atlantic.

Unlike in Spain, in the U.S. there is no nationwide lockdown and no guarantee to treat everyone who gets infected with covid-19. Just a few days ago, I saw people in Austin, Texas, which is where I went to college, flock to Barton Springs Pool and sit next to each other without a care for social distancing measures. Shortly after, the nation recorded the death of the first teenager, a 17-year-old from California, due to complications with covid-19. The teenager was initially refused care because he didn’t have health insurance.

There are many things that can and should be done during this crisis, and measures will undoubtedly vary per country. Although we cannot control what our governments decide to do to confront this situation, there is one thing we can all choose to do to help, no matter where we are: Stay home. I know that for many it will be a great sacrifice, and that some people may have circumstances that don’t allow them to do this, but it is extremely important.

I say this because I love America, and because I don’t want hundreds of thousands to die. To prevent that, Spain has taught me that it’s important for everyone to do their part. It’s the only way we can protect others, and the only way to ensure that we will be able to hug our loved ones again after this is over.

As for Spain, we’re holding it together. We understand that is a fight that every one of us is in, and we won’t give up. We’ll stay inside, for however long it takes, and come out every day to share a short moment together until it’s safe for everyone again. It’ll be at 8 p.m. The rumble will begin softly, and then it will resonate throughout the country, like it always does.