By: Briani Questelles
When the plane arrived in the Madrid- Barajas Adolfo Suarez Airport in late January, like everyone else, I was aware of coronavirus. It was a big concern for many New Yorkers, but when I stepped out of the airport in Spain it was as if the virus didn’t exist.
I witnessed first hand the closeness of Spaniards, I was shocked by the lack of personal space. On empty trains, strangers chose to sit directly next to me, when talking and waiting on line people stood two feet too close and in restaurants workers handled food without gloves. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was as if no one worried about germs at all. I quickly adapted to the relaxed and comfortable attitude of Spain and was blindsided when it was decimated by the coronavirus.
I had a bad case of laryngitis in my first week in Madrid, I couldn't talk, I couldn't swallow my own saliva and every few minutes I would suffer a coughing fit. If a stranger in New York saw me in this condition they would assume the worst and promptly back away. However, one day while in my sickly state I rode the metro four stops to go to the hospital in the hopes that a doctor would prescribe me something for my throat. I looked like death itself and after the first stop I broke out in a coughing fit. Panic and embarrassment overcame me, as I tried my best to hide the coughs in fear that the other passengers would think I had corona. I even contemplated getting off the train and walking the rest of the way, but to my surprise, an older lady sat next to me handed me a tissue.
In the following days, I moved into my dorm and my sickness phased no one, the biggest reaction I got from people were concerned looks. Coronavirus became small talk discussions later on and that was all it seemed to be. No one took protective measures and students from affected countries like China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran seemed to just be paranoid. The majority of us continued to plan trips both inside and outside of Spain.
I was sitting with my roommate in a small cafe when we decided to practice our listening skills in Spanish by watching the news. The major broadcast that day was that corona had reached Spain and was spreading fast in the north. Our reaction was something along the lines of, wow that's concerning. My roommate had a trip to Paris planned that weekend and worried that France might close its borders as Italy had done the week prior.
Corona didn’t pose a serious problem until after we had learned all universities were canceling school for two weeks and were postponing exams. At first we rejoiced, we were told not to worry that the problem should be resolved after the two weeks of social distancing. Panic set in as we began to realize that the number of students at our residency was dwindling. It was as if overnight everyone's attitudes towards coronavirus had changed. People began to wear masks, corona was no longer small talk - it was a cause for panic and fear.
I rode the subway with my roommate after her trip to Paris, she felt a tickle in her throat and let out a small cough. The warm, concerned looks that people offered me when I first got to Spain were not given to my roommate, a few people walked to the other side of the train car, while others secured their masks and scarves over their faces.
By the end of that week, there were about 12 students left in the residency. My roommate and I were American students and were lucky to find flights out of Madrid with ease, but students from Asia especially had difficulty finding flights back home.
When I first got to Madrid I was relieved to finally get away from the overreaction towards corona that many people seemed to have and while in Madrid I was blissfully unaware of the severity of the current pandemic.
Madrid went on lockdown two days after I arrived back in New York and quarantine was implemented across the whole country. They are still struggling to control the virus and are second in the world for having the most coronavirus cases.
The problems now may have been avoided if we were told to take preventative measures in the earlier months of coronavirus, but now we can help by staying in and staying healthy.