Madrid: Reporting from ground zero of Spain’s coronavirus lockdown

The Spanish capital has been transformed by new restrictions to contain the spread of Covid-19, with funeral homes without wakes, taxi drivers without passengers and Mass without worshipers

Members of the Emergency Military Unit patrol the Atocha train station in Madrid to ensure that people respect the coronavirus lockdown.
Members of the Emergency Military Unit patrol the Atocha train station in Madrid to ensure that people respect the coronavirus lockdown.©Jaime Villanueva (EL PAÍS)

The real impact of the coronavirus crisis is not going to be felt until after the lockdown comes to an end, says Manuel, as he picks up boxes. He is referring to the state of alarm, announced by the Spanish government on Saturday, that has confined all Spaniards to their homes in a bid to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. “The economic crisis that is coming is so big that we can’t even imagine it,” says Manuel. His restaurant Lúa, located in the Madrid neighborhood of Chamberí, has been closed for three days.

“I closed voluntarily [before the lockdown was implemented] out of responsibility. I estimate that I am going to lose more than €300,000,” he says. Manuel still doesn’t know how long his restaurant will have to stay shut. But he does know – or at least suspects – that things won’t return to normal for a long time after he reopens. “In the hospitality sector, it’s estimated that it will take a year for things to get back to where we were. People have to restore their trust and money, and tourists will not return for a long time,” he says.

In an area that is home to more than six million people, it is now easier to hear the birds than the traffic

Lúa is closed like all stores that don’t sell foodstuffs or pharmaceutical supplies. Madrid under lockdown is not the same city. In an area that is home to more than six million people, it is now easier to hear the birds than the traffic. The few people who leave their homes to go to the supermarket or pharmacy speak softly, as though the city were on pause and any sudden movement could accidentally return it to its normal bustle. Silence, which is never heard in the city, now reigns. Madrid has gone into hibernation.

On the Paseo de la Castellana boulevard, only a few cars trickle past. It’s even stranger to see a pedestrian on the street. It’s as if a film director has cleared the area for a shoot and asked for silence. “It shocks me to see the avenues like this,” says Fernando, as he sweeps without a face mask. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Taxi drivers Pablo and Eric are angrier about the situation. They kill time leaning against the door to their cars at the taxi stand near Neptune Fountain, a spot that is usually bustling but is now static as though it were a backdrop. “On a normal day, by this time, I would have made €100. I have made nothing and he [Eric] has made €11,” says Pablo. “We are very worried.”

Another driver, wearing a face mask, adds: “When someone gets out of the taxi, I clean my hands and air out the car.”

The same concern can be seen on the face of María, a cook in a hotel in the center of Madrid. She is taking a break with two friends on a street behind the building. “We don’t have much to do. There are few occupied rooms, less than 10%,” she says. “In the next few days, they will tell us all to leave. They are preparing an ERTE [temporary workforce reduction]. Who wants to come to a hotel in Madrid?!”

I am going to have a baby in a city where nobody can touch one another, be close to each other or be in the street
Pregnant woman in Madrid

Near the hotel, midday Mass is beginning at the Jesús de Medinaceli church. “It hasn’t been suspended. Nor have we been given any concrete advice,” says a worried-looking church worker. There are just eight people inside. “Normally, 250 people come to this Mass,” he says. The voice of the priest echoes in the empty temple. When it comes time to give the sign of peace, the priest skips the part and does not ask the worshipers to perform the symbolic act.

In the south of Madrid, outside the maternity department of the 12 de Octubre Hospital, a pregnant woman, who prefers not to give her name, holds her belly as she walks towards the entrance. She is due any moment. “I’m fine, but I am worried. I am going to have a baby in a city where nobody can touch one another, be close to each other or be in the street.” These are concerns that don’t make the news.

A few meters away from the hospital is the Madrid Sur mortuary. Like in all funeral homes, wakes have been banned. A young, friendly man says that the restriction makes it even more painful for the mourners. “It’s already a difficult moment, but the fact that people can’t come to support one another, give each other a hug or just be here makes it even harder,” he says while he enters the building.

The Soto del Real prison is a 25-minute car ride from the center of Madrid. Getting there is easy now that the lockdown has come into effect. The M-30 ring road, almost always filled with cars, is completely free of traffic as though it were a test track. The message boards are sharing advice that has nothing to do with the typical traffic recommendations. “Better to stay at home,” is the message visible to the few drivers who are on the road.

Prison without visits

In the prison, several families are waiting to see their loved ones. Rafael, 60, has come to see his son. An official with gloves and a mask tells him that all face-to-face visits have been cancelled. The only option is to go to the phone room and speak to him from behind a partition. “They are anxious about the coronavirus issue. They think people who come from outside [the prison] are a risk,” says the Madrileño. “Now it’s the opposite to what it used to be: they are afraid of those on the outside,” he says with a smile.

Meanwhile in Orcasur, one of the most humble neighborhoods in Madrid, there is hardly anyone out on the street. In the center of the Spanish capital, there are more people. Almost all are going to or coming from the supermarket or bakery. But there are also people going for a run. We try to ask a runner why they were out on the street, but they refuse to reply. Finally one woman agrees to answer. She explains: “I need to clear my head. I can’t stand being inside all day. I think going down alone to the park, running and returning without touching anyone isn’t dangerous. Right?”

Dog owners also break the solitude of the streets. Ángeles is walking his dog while wearing a mask. “I live right here. I come down, the dog pees and I go back home.” Before leaving, he gives some advice: “Put on a face mask, son. Take care.”

A few tourists in the street are the last of the lockdown resistance. “This is Santa Ana square,” a guide tells three French visitors. “And although you might not believe it, it is always filled with people.”

“We arrived here several days ago, we arrived before the state of alarm,” explains one of the tourists. “And now that we are here, we want to get to know Madrid.” And Madrid is on full display as it silently waits for good news.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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