‘It is easy to blame us for spread of Covid-19, rather than the people in authority’

EL PAÍS speaks with residents in districts affected by the restrictions on mobility about the rise in coronavirus cases and whether the new rules will be able to curb contagion

A man in Madrid‘s Usera district, which has been confined due to the rise in Covid-19 cases.
A man in Madrid‘s Usera district, which has been confined due to the rise in Covid-19 cases.Andrea Comas
Manuel Jabois

Francisco Albarrán was 21 years old when he left Ávila province and came to the Madrid district of Usera looking for work. It was 1974 and he found a job in a bar that had been open for six months called Vicentín. He went on to run the place and has been behind the bar now for a total of 46 years.

Dressed in a maroon shirt and black apron, Albarrán serves coffee to a customer playing the slot machines. “I’m thinking of retiring for the first time. Not because I want to, but because this is forcing me to,” he says. By “this,” he is referring to the virus. Half a year after it first emerged, Covid-19 no longer needs to be referred to by name. “This country has been through a lot since 1974,” he adds. “Dictatorship, crises... But this is the worst.”

In a bid to curb coronavirus contagion in the region, the Madrid government has placed 37 basic health areas – many of them in working-class – under a selective lockdown. Usera is one of the districts affected by the new rules, which came into effect on Monday. Under these rules, people in the affected areas are only allowed in and out for essential activities such as going to school or work, or to care for dependents. Public parks in the restricted zone have been closed, capacity at stores and other commercial establishments reduced to 50% and closing time set at 10pm, with the exception of pharmacies and gas stations.

As of Monday, Albarrán’s bar is only allowed 10 customers inside at once, none of whom can stand at the counter; and it has to close by 10pm. But he was closing at that time even before the new restrictions came into effect. “Things don’t work like they used to, whether that’s 20 customers inside or opening beyond 10pm,” he says.

It’s 10am and the Vicentín has been open since 7am. “People act irresponsibly and recommendations are not followed. Twenty guys meet and nothing happens,” says Albarrán, adding, “I am 67 and I have never regretted coming here from Ávila; Madrid has given me everything.”

Why are some of us affected and others aren’t? Because of the way we behave? So how are they behaving in the center of the city?
Montse, unemployed woman in Usera

The Vicentín is in Rafaela Ybarra street in the Zofío area of the Usera district where restrictions were enforced due to the high coronavirus transmission rates. The street is named after an affluent 19th century woman from Bilbao who gave alms to the poor using silk gloves to avoid dirtying her hands. “She realized that this was not right,” wrote Carmen Torres in a biography Rafaela Ybarra. The Lover of God. Exchanging her luxurious clothes for humble attire, Ybarra dedicated her life to caring for girls and young women, for which she was beatified.

When her husband, the president of the manufacturing company, Altos Hornos de Vizcaya, inquired after her fortune, he was told that his wife kept it in the best bank there was – heaven. Today if Ybarra was to grace the street named after her, she would have to pull her gloves back on. In the parish of San Juan de Avila, in Fornillos street, there is a quote from her, placed there in 2003, which reads: “Gaze on this world, as it was all made through love for you, and all it is, and all things in it, speak of love, and demand love, and mean love.” When entering the church itself, a sign informs visitors that there is no holy water and that the sign of peace is made without touching.

“It is easy to blame us for the uncontrolled spread [of the virus], rather than the people in authority or those who should have given us the resources to organize ourselves,” says Montse, a young unemployed woman who is taking her dog out at 11am. “What are they going to do about the people who have to work outside the area – which is the majority?” she asks. “What are they going to do about the people waiting for a PCR test? And what are they going to do about people with children? Why are some of us affected and others aren’t? Because of the way we behave? So how are they behaving in the center of the city?”

On Marina Usera street, a man drops his cigarette which falls close to the feet of Juan Carlos Valdeoliva, who is standing at the door of the Luarca bar. Valdeoliva works at the bar and lives in the Usera district. “The measures are a joke and, because of them, many businesses here are definitely going to go down the drain,” he says.

So why is the spread of the disease so virulent in the district? “Because there are a lot of assholes who don’t do what they should,” he replies, then, reiterating the prejudices that have taken root in various sectors of the population, he adds, “I’m not a racist, but South Americans don’t give a damn about the measures.”

During the Spanish Civil War, Zofío – a health area in the Usera district – was known as the Usera front where one of the most important episodes of the Republican defense of Madrid took place. The sculptor Emilio Barral died nearby, hit by a shell, and had the following lines dedicated to him by Spanish poet, Antonio Machado: “Emiliano Barral, captain of the Segovia militia, fell at the gates of Madrid, defending his country against an army of traitors, mercenaries and foreigners.”

The entrance to the Metro station in Carabanchel, which has been placed under a selective lockdown.
The entrance to the Metro station in Carabanchel, which has been placed under a selective lockdown.David Fernández (EFE)

Julio Embid calls the Madrid district of Carabanchel home, though he currently lives in Zaragoza province, where he works as a coordinator for the Socialist Party’s (PSOE) parliamentary group in Aragón. Carabanchal, like Usera, is also under a selective lockdown. In 2016, Embid wrote an essay called Concrete Children; How do we live on the southern fringes of Madrid? In it, he talks about how five-story syndicate blocks were built between the M-30 and M-40 ring roads, housing thousands of people during the 1960s from all over Spain, their diversity of origin reflected in the street names. “Many of the streets in the Pilar neighborhood are called after Galician towns, and in El Pozo, the names are towns in Córdoba; in Aluche it’s towns in Toledo,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone.

Embid sheds light on what he terms “one of the most unequal cities in Europe,” explaining that there is a four-year difference in life expectancy between El Viso, the capital’s wealthiest neighborhood, and Villaverde, in the far south. “There are just three hospitals for a million inhabitants: Gómez Ulla, 12 de Octubre and Infanta Leonor. Nowhere else in Spain with a million inhabitants do they have just three hospitals," he says, referring to Madrid’s southern districts. "If you live in Las Águilas, in the south of Madrid, and you work in La Moraleja, for every 19 years, you will spend an entire one on a train,” he adds. “The distances are long and public transportation has not improved. Not only has it not improved, between 2005 to 2014, the inflation rate in Madrid rose by 10 points while the basic monthly transport pass rose by 45 points.”

The authorities don’t follow the advice of the experts – such as providing trackers, more primary healthcare resources, planning for schools and teachers
Antonio Palacios, psychologist in Carabanchel

Emid also points out another difference in this area: the rise of the misery economy. Since the financial crisis, there has been a notable increase in “businesses that can only work if people are doing badly, such as betting stores, pawnshops and witchcraft stores – for the desperate,” he says.

Meanwhile, in the neighboring Carabanchel district, five communions take place at 12:30pm in Colonia de la Prensa. Many journalists would retire to villas in this old residential district at the start of the 20th century. Several of these villas are still standing, but many were demolished when the area began to attract more working-class families.

A group of people in formal dress stand out in the empty street. Antonio Palacios, a psychologist, emerges from one of the communions. “It is unfair to take issue just with the individual responsibility of the locals,” he says. “The authorities don’t follow the advice of the experts – such as providing trackers, more primary healthcare resources, planning for schools and teachers. There is a very clear lack of responsibility.”

The communion was supposed to be held in May but had to be put off until last weekend. It almost didn’t happen. “I don’t know if it could be held after Monday,” says Palacios, in reference to the new restrictions which have reduced capacity at religious sites to one third. “Today, 10 relatives, including parents, can enter the church. There is no lunch, and although we had planned to go to a park to celebrate, with the weather as it is, we can’t do that either.”

The weather is cloudy with showers in Carabanchel. People come and go from the local market. There is a queue at the fishmonger and butcher with people standing more than a meter and a half apart, occupying almost the entire market. Tucked away, cobbler Mariano is at his stall making shoes. He knows that things have changed but as he lives in another district, he doesn’t think he will have any problems. “If there are any problems, they’ll give me a pass or something,” he says. “At this stage, they need to let me get on.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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