When Victoria Vivancos went out for bread on Sunday, she came back in tears. As she and her son were making their way to the bakery and back – a 20-minute trip – several residents of nearby buildings came out on their balconies to scream at them: “Are you crazy?” “Stop going out for a stroll!”
Vivancos and her 22-year-old son Pablo, who is autistic and suffers from Phelan-McDermid syndrome, which causes developmental delay, were the only two people walking down the avenue that morning in Murcia, a city in southeastern Spain.
Although Spain has been in lockdown since March 14 in a bid to contain the fast spread of the coronavirus, there are exceptions to the rule that people must go out by themselves for essential business like groceries or prescriptions. Individuals who have dependents in their care may go out in the company of minors, seniors and others who cannot stay home alone.
“I understand why people are worried, but I assure you that I am not taking my son with me out of personal whim. The law allows me to do so, because he needs me,” says Vivancos, 52.
It is not just people with dependents in their care who are suffering from this new form of of harassment. Citizens who have no choice but to physically go to work – such as supermarket cashiers, healthcare workers and cleaning personnel – have been using Twitter to voice their anger at this “balcony police.” On occasion, these self-appointed vigilantes have hurled insults, spitballs and eggs at passersby.
The municipal police force in Pinto, in the Madrid region, notes that children with autism and other conditions may go outdoors, and asks residents to check “before being disrespectful to anybody.” The police are also advising caregivers to wear a reflective vest during outings. Some associations recommend wearing a blue ribbon on their arm.
But Vivancos rejects these ideas. “We are sufficiently stigmatized already, I have no desire to be branded like that,” she says. “Neighbors have no authority to to take justice into their own hands.”
But Laura, who works at a Carrefour superstore, has decided to always go out wearing her uniform. Last Saturday she was headed for her car at 6.30am when a woman suddenly screamed out from her window: “Go back home, you are shameless!” Laura opened up her coat to reveal her uniform and told the woman to mind her own business.
“My husband and I work at superstores and we need to go to work every day. It’s nice that they are going out on the balconies to applaud our work at 8pm, but I’d rather they didn’t insult us,” she says.
María, 22, who is a clerk at an Alcampo City supermarket in Burgos, says she has become inured to the screams. “I am so tired and weary at the end of the day that I just don’t care anymore.”
Cristina was caught off guard by a spitball. She was arriving home after spending eight hours at a hospital in Lugo (Galicia) where she works as a lab technician. She didn’t realize it was aimed at her until she heard a woman yell: “Hey, you! Go back to your fucking house! You’re going to make someone sick, you retard!” Cristina tried to explain that she was returning from work, but the reply was: “Don’t tell me your life story!” followed by another spitball.
“I felt more confused and surprised than anything else,” says Cristina, 35. “Later I tried to find excuses for her behavior: that maybe she is unwell, that we are all very frustrated...For the sake of my own mental health, the last thing I wanted is to have a confrontation with her and have an even worse experience.”
This kind of behavior could be due to “poor emotional management,” according to Laura García García, a psychologist and coach who specializes in teenagers and adults. She says that quite possibly the intention underlying these attitudes is positive. “Everybody is trying to contribute something and to help in some way. But this fear that society is experiencing in such a difficult scenario is expressing itself in a toxic way.”
This specialist recommends that each one of us focus on their own personal acts. “We cannot be the judge of other people’s situation. We need to show empathy, especially in such an extreme situation.”
English version by Susana Urra.