CORONAVIRUS

Outrage over passenger who boarded Spanish flight with coronavirus: “My son sat next to him”

The mother of a nine-year-old boy seated beside a man who had tested positive for Covid-19 describes her indignation over the incident

A group of passengers at Lanzarote airport on Friday.
A group of passengers at Lanzarote airport on Friday.Cabildo de Lanzarote

Nine-year-old Pedro will never forget his first plane trip. Last Friday, he was seated “very reluctantly” in the aisle seat of row 36, a few spots away from his mother and his 11-year-old sister on a flight from Madrid to Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands.

According to his mother Lucía, who preferred not to use her real name, every so often Pedro tried to look out the window at the sea. The window seat was occupied by a 53-year-old man who, just minutes before takeoff, had learned that he had tested positive for Covid-19 via a PCR lab test taken on Wednesday. The man did not inform the crew of the Iberia Express flight, despite earlier reports by the Canary Island regional health department that he had told the pilot and that he had been seated in the last row of the plane. The regional health department has since corrected this information.

“My son was sitting next to him and I can’t stop crying from the impotence when I think of such irresponsibility,” says Lucía. Since landing in Lanzarote, Lucía and her two children, as well as 11 other passengers, have been placed in a compulsory 14-day quarantine in three hotels provided by the local government. Another 36 passengers voluntarily decided to self-isolate, 23 of them in their own homes. “I don’t have words to describe that man, but the first thing I will do when I get out will be to file an official complaint against him,” says Lucía.

The 42-year-old mother and her two children had flown to Lanzarote to make a new home there, together with Lucía’s partner. But Lucía has had to cancel several interviews for jobs in the cleaning sector, and says she has been having “a hard time.” “I was terrified,” she explains. “The man didn’t wear gloves and did not wear a mask for long periods of time during the flight next to my son.” Other passengers confirmed this but did not want to be named. Lucía’s children don’t understand the situation, but they can tell that their mother is worried and upset. “It is not fair that we are paying for the irresponsibility of another person,” says Lucía.

The 53-year-old passenger had traveled to Madrid and then to Manzanares, in the Castilla-La Mancha region, to attend his mother’s funeral. Although the man had not been in contact with his mother, according to regional authorities from Castilla-La Mancha, he was in contact with the rest of the family, at least one of whom had tested positive for coronavirus. It was this diagnosis that prompted the man to get tested. Health officials realized the man was flying to Lanzarote when they tried to inform him of his test results. That was when they alerted Canary Island authorities, who jumped into action to contain the situation.

When the flight landed in Lanzarote, a group of Civil Guard officers equipped with personal protective equipment entered the plane to organize the disembarkment and minimize passenger contact with the 53-year-old man. The health team gathered people who had been “sufficiently close” to the infected individual to be at risk of infection and transported them to three hotels offered at no charge by the local government. During the two-week quarantine, these passengers will also be provided with a free catering service and medical attention.

María Dolores Corujo, the head of the local government of Lanzarote, says that PCR tests will be carried out on all the affected passengers this coming Friday “to ensure everyone’s health.” The official, however, noted that the lab results from the 53-year-old showed that he had a very low viral load of the virus. Corujo also called on the public to act responsibly and not undo the “privileged condition of the archipelago,” which has not recorded a single positive coronavirus case since April 30. Despite the incident, the Canary Island regional government is expected to request to move to Phase 3 of the coronavirus deescalation plan on June 8. “We trust in the protocols and in the effective regional response,” said Corujo.

Yolanda Ferreira is another passenger who has been confined to a hotel. Although she was seated in Business class, 34 rows away from the infected man, she has decided to self-quarantine to make sure she is not a danger to her neighbors on the island of La Graciosa. This Canary island, along with El Hierro, La Gomera and Formentera (in the Balearic Islands) entered Phase 3 of the national deescalation plan on Monday. “I cannot arrive there without knowing whether or not I have the virus. I don’t want to put my family at risk,” she explains.

Although she is grateful for the treatment they are receiving at the hotel, she believes the protocols should be even stricter. “When we got on the bus [to the hotel] we were all crowded in, and that’s not how it should be done,” she says. However, she says that on the Iberia Express flight passengers had been placed one seat apart from one another. “At least it was not like on other flights,” she says. In May, an Iberia Express flight between Madrid and the Canary Island of Gran Canaria drew criticism for being close to full capacity with no possibility of observing social-distancing measures recommended in order to avoid coronavirus contagion.

Agoney González is another passenger who has voluntarily gone into quarantine. The 34-year-old will have to wait another 14 days before seeing his family. He had been spending the lockdown in Madrid at a friend’s house and is frustrated that he has gone “from confinement to confinement.” Authorities gave him the option of returning home because he had not been seated near the affected passenger. But González does not want to expose his family or the people that his mother cares for. “She works in a senior residence. How could I return home? Everyone has to think about their own responsibility,” he says.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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