It was bound to happen sooner or later. The virus, I mean. The planet is a very small place, and we are all interconnected – in sickness and in health, as the traditional wedding vow goes.
Take the example of Spain. With a staggering 83.7 million tourists visiting last year, this country is like a revolving door of cultures, money – and germs. Consider next the millions of nationals who work, study and vacation abroad, and then add every single item that is fabricated overseas and shipped here, and it is easy to see how a virus can become a global pandemic.
Last Friday Spain declared a state of National Emergency. Together with the rest of the country, Ronda went into lockdown. Schools, businesses, stores, associations and churches, and even their beloved tapas bars shut down for an undetermined length of time. Reluctantly at first, the overly social Andalusians had to learn about public distancing, and though hand washing habits leave much to be desired here, the traditional kissing as a greeting is probably the hardest habit to break for the local populous.
Now in week 2 of ‘house arrest’, most Spaniards have adapted to their new circumstances. In our little town, police are on the street ensuring that rules are enforced. The Spanish Legion is patrolling outside the regional hospital. Only one person from each family can leave the house for approved errands, such as buying food or medicine, or dog walking, preferably sporting surgical gloves and mask. No other outdoor activities are allowed, except a peak-over-your-shoulder jog to the garbage and recycling containers. Anyone breaking curfew risks being fined thousands of euros. Yet, as we scrub our hands, wipe door handles with alcohol and bathe our vegetables in diluted disinfectants, two people have now succumbed to the virus in our town. Others are in isolation, awaiting verdict.
At the moment, this is the new normal.
People are coping as best as they can in their homes, reading, cleaning, studying, sending stupid jokes on WhatsApp or watching movies. To be sure, most of us are not suffering any hardship, certainly not compared to let’s say the people of Syria. We have roofs over our heads, food in our fridge, electricity, running water and high speed Internet. Although the Amazon delivery guy looks like a character in Mask, online orders are allowed, and while mail is no longer delivered, we can still phone our loved ones.
The so-called isolation we are experiencing is probably good for us in more ways than one.
Speaking for myself, I might eventually learn to be a tad more patient. I have always done things as quickly as possible, but now with all the time in the world, I strive to approach what I am doing mindfully, even if it is something as inconsequential as cleaning the utensils drawer in the kitchen. Being legally required to stay at home forces us to become more inventive and possibly step out of our comfort zone. My almost 90-year-old mother has had to start washing and ‘setting’ her own hair, a task she likely hasn’t done for half a century.
During house arrest we might be forced to face and even befriend our demons. Stillness is my nemesis, which I now have to embrace. Those who fear living alone might search for company in new things, be it a bird perched in their windowsill or the clouds blowing by. For others, the challenge is being enclosed with a partner 24/7. It is easy to snap at the only person that is near us in such trying times, but since there are no place to run away to, we must be aware that our words and actions may have different effects and consequences in our current situation. To get over this and come out better than we started, we should strive to be more malleable to change.
The other day my phone pedometer registered my daily step count at 72, while it usually is over 10.000. This would normally have driven me up the wall, but these are not normal times. So I practice my very short patience. I try to lengthen every move and every breath when I do my morning yoga. After all, there is no bell at the end of the hour or incoming class after me. I see breathing slowly into a pose that sometimes is not very comfortable as an analogy for the current situation.
Though my husband claims to have computer work until Kingdom Come, there is no end to what one can do enclosed en casa. We witness locals inventing creative ways to stay in touch and support each other. A friend recorded himself playing guitar. A priest has started an online prayer group. Another friend started singing the first lines of a song, prompting others to continue, like a musical WhatsApp chain reaction. People we hardly know send suggestions for movies and documentaries to watch, articles to read or online TED talks to listen to. A Dutch couple we know have created an impromptu gym in their hallway. Others walk the stairs instead of the Stair Master or do walking meditation rounds on their stamp-sized balconies. I bet that our friend Pilar dances flamenco in her living room. Though I am a terrible cook, once I have finalized deep cleaning the entire house with a toothbrush, I might find a step-by-step video to finally learn how to make a decent Spanish tortilla.
What is positive about this communal confinement is exactly that – that it is a shared experience. Though we are in separate homes, we are in it together. There is a growing sense of solidarity. Increasingly, people seem to be less concerned about their appearances and more concerned about the well being of others. While in some places people may fight for the last package of TP in the grocery stores, here I find a growing sense of empathy, kindness and solidarity.
Every night at 8 pm residents all over Spain go to their windows or doors and clap for the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, police officers and emergency personnel risking their heath and safety to help us through the crisis. Whether they have a choice or not, or are bound by a Hippocratic oath, it is still a commendable act. And for us, the enclosed masses, we thank them in our simple, yet exhilarating way, by clapping and cheering every night.
From her balcony in Barcelona a former opera singer and voice coach sings for the people living in the surrounding apartment buildings every evening, while her young son holds the tape recorder with the musical accompaniment. I can find no nicer way to share ones skills and passion in the current situation
It is an uncertain time for many. I feel for two neighbours who are about to give birth, whom I am sure are not only worried about the safety of the hospital itself, but also what world their new child will grow up in. My heart goes out to friends and family in northern Italy, to people who are sick, and for those waiting for hospital treatments, surgeries or results on cancer tests. What hardship do we have compared to theirs?
A doctor friend was quarantined after being exposed to a patient with the virus. The first thing he did when he returned to his office was to personally call every one of his patients to check how they were doing. Many are older and most were terrified. They know that they are the most vulnerable, yet they are often the least equipped to find out how to protect themselves. So, with all our extra time, we should try to find ways of helping those who cannot help themselves.
Come what may, this is something we have to go through. In Ronda we are only in our second week of house arrest. We know it will go on for weeks and that it will get worse before it will get better. However, while we must shut our doors to our friends and neighbours, this is a great opportunity to open our hearts out to others and show random kindness, even if it is over the Internet.
This crisis is a chance to learn to want less and live with less, to be grateful for what we do have and to willingly share our bounty. It is time to slow down, and stop counting our assets but rather our blessings. This is the time to be generous with our time, lending our ears and showing empathy. We cannot hug each other, so a friendly wave or a timely note means so much more.
The virus has forced us to stop in our tracks, giving the planet a break from our incessant pollution. It proves that we can stop Global Warming if we want to, or if we are afraid enough… This is not the last virus that will plague the earth. We ought to be mindful of its lessons so we might be better prepared next time around.
I hope that humankind will come out of this crisis a bit wiser, kinder and more patient, and that we never forget that something as simple as going outside can be a privilege.