‘If I survive the coronavirus, I don’t know if I will survive the crisis’

The lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 is causing a social emergency in Spain, with entire families confined to one room and children going hungry

Red Cross volunteers handing out food packages in Alcobendas, in the Madrid region.
Red Cross volunteers handing out food packages in Alcobendas, in the Madrid region.Samuel Sánchez

Two weeks ago Álex Canal, 40, was installing tiles in a swimming pool in a country house outside Madrid. The company that hired Canal was paying him in cash at the end of each work day. Canal, like the rest of his colleagues, lived from day to day. That afternoon, when he finished work, the boss gave them the bad news about the stricter lockdown conditions. “We are not allowed to work. Everyone has to go home.”

Canal collected his things and left. Since then, he has been living in a room that is two meters wide and four meters long. He shares this room with his wife Carmen Rosa and their two children, who are 15 and six. The four of them take up the entire space. “This is where we have been spending the lockdown,” says Canal. “And this is where we sleep. Two up on top and two below” he adds, pointing to bunk beds with old, sagging mattresses.

The 40-square-meter apartment in Alcobendas, 13 kilometers north of the Spanish capital, has two more rooms which are home to two more families. In total, there are 10 people living in a space designed for two or three. At times there are so many people in one spot that they stumble into each other, but they have grown so accustomed to it that they don’t even seem to take notice anymore.

“The hardest thing about this is not the disease. It’s not being able to leave, having no space,” says Canal from behind a paper face mask. “And we are praying that no one falls ill, because we would not be able to isolate them. They would have to live out on the landing or by the front door.” He is serious when he says this. “I would go live under a bridge before infecting my children,” he says.

The home of Álex Canal, Carmen Rosa García and their two children.
The home of Álex Canal, Carmen Rosa García and their two children.Samuel Sánchez

David de Miguel is the director of the Red Cross Social Intervention and Employment department in the Madrid region. He helps deliver food to the most vulnerable people in the region. “Before the pandemic, every Red Cross food bank would assist around 10 people. Now we have 50 people at each one,” he says. There are 45 such centers in the region of Madrid alone.

“This health emergency is leading to a social emergency for which we have no plan or protocol,” says De Miguel. “A tremendous pocket of poverty has been generated in just two weeks. And it keeps growing. In Spain, there is an entire segment of the population that lives in the informal economy and this sector has ground to a halt. It has been destroyed in just a few days. And people have been left with nothing.”

One of the Red Cross food centers is in the municipality of San Sebastián de los Reyes, next to Alcobendas. There, inside a large room, two volunteers named Javi and Sofía fill dozens of cardboard boxes with food and cleaning products. “We are receiving 100 calls for help every day. Every single day,” says Fran Rico, the head of the center. “What we are currently providing is humanitarian aid. I don’t remember anything like it.”

The hardest thing about this is not the disease. It’s not being able to leave, having no space
Álex Canal, who lives in a single room with wife and two children

According to Sofía, sometimes they deliver food to homes where people have spent two days without eating. “I don’t want to imagine what this will be like within two months,” she says, as she prepares to visit 10 different homes.

A loud cough is heard when the Red Cross team enters the first building on the route. Mari Cruz, wearing a red dressing gown and a face mask, is waiting by the door of her apartment. She does not cross the threshold. A few days ago she tested positive for coronavirus. Javi and Sofía leave the box of food on her kitchen table. The apartment has two rooms. Mari Cruz lives in one with her two children, aged four and two. Her pregnant sister, who has cancer, lives in the other. “She is isolated so that I don’t infect her,” explains Mari Cruz.

They have not left the apartment since March 13, a day before Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a state of alarm that effectively put the entire country on lockdown in a bid to slow the coronavirus outbreak. “A neighbor goes to the supermarket for us and also buys us medicine. God bless her. We bring it up in a basket using a pulley from the window,” says Mari Cruz. Everyone in the apartment lives off the child support payments made by the children’s father. “It’s around €200 a month. But he has lost his job, so I don’t know what is going to happen next month,” she says. “If I survive the coronavirus, I don’t know if I will survive the crisis.”

In the home of Miriam, which is the second stop on the route, there is more space. Miriam lives in an apartment with her son and two friends, but her friends are spending the lockdown at the homes where they work. While she puts away the milk cartons from the Red Cross, she explains that the coronavirus crisis has left her with nothing. “I was working as a domestic helper in four houses. They paid me by the hour. Only one continues to pay me, so we have very little. Everything goes to pay the rent,” she says. Miriam’s son is 15 years old, and he has his own troubles now that schools have closed. “We don’t have a computer. To do his homework and follow classes he connects using my cellphone, and he sends a few emails to his teachers. But it’s difficult,” she explains.

Sometimes I go to the bathroom to feel for a moment that I am alone
Blanca Nubia, who lives in a single room with her two sons

According to De Miguel “many people are being left behind” by the crisis. “People without resources, without internet connections, without means […] There are going to be students who will begin the next term with much less preparation than their classmates,” he says. Miriam’s son is one example. “We have also come across cases of parents who have to go to work and who are leaving their young children alone at home all day. These children are not being looked after,” adds De Miguel.

The Red Cross volunteers continue to deliver food packages in Alcobendas, next to San Sebastián de los Reyes. Javi is welcomed warmly by Blanca Nubia, 44, who lives with her two sons, who are 27 and 15. All three of them live inside a room she rents for €350 a month. A man rents out the second bedroom in the 50-square-meter apartment, and an entire family is living in the third. They all share a kitchen and the bathroom. The floor is covered with white tiles and there is very little light. The walls are bare and worn out. “I don’t even know where to go. Sometimes I come here to the kitchen and I sit down. Then I return to the bedroom. Sometimes I go to the bathroom just to feel for a moment that I am alone… I am truly desperate,” says Nubia, who lost her job at a cleaning company where she worked with her son.

Blanca Nubia in her home in Alcobendas.
Blanca Nubia in her home in Alcobendas.Samuel Sánchez

Two euros in the bank account

Nubia says that she sends out dozens of job applications every day. “Of all types. But only those that I cannot accept reply. A man who wants company … things involving webcams... There are people who are taking advantage of those of us who are desperate,” she says with teary eyes. “Right now I have €2 in my bank account. I don’t even have enough for a loaf of bread. I depend on this,” she says, pointing to the food boxes brought by Javi and Sofía.

The Red Cross volunteers end the route at the home of Abderrazak Harraz, a native of Morocco who has lived in Spain for the past 18 years. He comes to the front door of the building to collect the food package, wearing a woollen cap on his head and sandals on his feet. “I am looking for employment as a seasonal farm worker. I read somewhere that they need people in the countryside,” he says. “Right now I don’t have anything. My family in Morocco is sending me money. I need to work in something, anything. But at least I am healthy. There are people going through worse things. One shouldn’t complain,” he says, smiling.

As Javi and Sofía are about to leave, Harraz asks if they need more volunteers. “If you need help, call me please. I could lend a hand,” he says, as he picks up the last bag of food and returns to confinement. Outside, the rain keeps coming down.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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