Madrid: Confinement and solidarity

Paradoxically, in some cases, confinement has actually led to even more social interaction on a personal level, and the making of new friends.

AN ALLEY in Madrid during the lockdown (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ALLEY in Madrid during the lockdown
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Madrileños – residents of Madrid – are known to be outgoing, friendly and gregarious. Friends rarely get together at one another’s houses, preferring instead to meet at restaurants, cafés and bars, where you can order a beer and tapas and sit talking for hours; the waiter will not bring the check until you ask for it. So the current quarantine has altered our lifestyle here even more than in other places that don’t have this kind of tradition of social interaction.
The coronavirus first reached mainland Spain on February 24. Since then, the number of those affected has risen exponentially, especially since March 8, when massive International Women’s Day demonstrations are thought to have hastened its spread.
From the beginning, Madrid has been the most affected city in Spain, with half of the total cases and deaths occurring here. On March 11, the regional government closed all schools, from preschools to universities. Three days later, as the number of cases began to multiply, the Spanish government declared a national emergency, ordering the closure of all non-essential businesses and requiring that all non-essential workers stay at home, only leaving their homes to work, buy food or go to the places of work that were permitted. Police are posted on the streets and highways and people must carry safe conduct passes to justify their need to be out. Violators are subject to penalties ranging from fines of €600 to arrest for repeat offenders.
On Sunday, March 14, the day that these measures went into effect, a massive social media campaign called on everyone to open their windows at 10:00 p.m. and applaud in support of the healthcare workers who were risking their own well-being to care for the victims of the virus. The following day the action was repeated, this time at 8:00 p.m. so that children could participate. The movement spread to the rest of Spain (and, indeed, to the rest of the world), becoming a daily ritual.
However, while madrileños are aware of the need to remain indoors, and most are very disciplined about following the government dictates, our natural gregariousness and solidarity have caused these daily ovations to evolve into a new way to interact socially, even while remaining physically separated. At 8:00, the daily applause is accompanied by singing and dancing (often to music played on a loudspeaker by one of the neighbors). Afterward, in some places there are musicians who go out on their balconies to offer short concerts to their neighbors. One violinist even treated his listeners to a heartfelt rendition of “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
Paradoxically, in some cases, confinement has actually led to even more social interaction on a personal level, and the making of new friends. Most large apartment blocks have small internal courtyards, built between two buildings, and mostly used for hanging laundry. Many people do not know most of the neighbors in their own buildings, and even fewer in the buildings across the courtyard. But these days with everyone confined to their own apartments, some people have started to call across the courtyards to their neighbors, sometimes even organizing daily meetings, just to chat.
Others have mobilized to offer services to those who are particularly vulnerable and cannot leave their homes at all. Sometimes these initiatives are individual, sometimes collective. Signs have appeared in building lobbies and elevators: “My name is Noelia; I live in apartment 10B. If you are in a high-risk group and need someone to do your shopping or go to the pharmacy, please let me know. We have to support each other in these times.” Through social media, neighborhood groups have been organized to shop and run other errands for high-risk neighbors, as well as offer company (by phone) to those who are alone, babysitting services to families in which the parents are still working, food banks and legal advice to those who have lost their jobs. These groups have made their services known by posting signs in local food stores, pharmacies and building lobbies, since most high-risk people are elderly and not users of social media. Also, these initiatives have been widely covered in the written press and on radio and television.
The Jewish community has also taken initiatives in this time of crisis. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain estimates there are about 45,000 Jews in the country, with around 15,000 in Madrid. (These figures are approximate because many Jews here are not affiliated.) There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations here and at Passover they all usually host Seder for their members, as well as guests, who are often students or tourists. This year, of course, that has been impossible. However, they have all organized activities online, from virtual Seder to lectures and discussion groups, often together with their sister congregations in other parts of Spain and the world. They have also made it possible for high-risk people who should not go out at all to have matzah and other Passover foods delivered to their homes, and together with the Jewish day school, have organized a special program to keep in touch daily, through phone or video calls, with the elderly, who often live alone and are especially likely to feel isolated and lonely at this time.
There is a saying in Spanish, "no hay mal que por bien no venga"; the rough equivalent in English would be “every cloud has a silver lining.” And while just like the rest of the world we are eager for life to get back to normal, to be able to return to our favorite bars for a beer and tapas with our friends, madrileños – and Spaniards in general – are doing their utmost to make the best of this terrible situation and, hopefully, we will all come out better and happier on the other side.
The writer is an American and long-time resident of Madrid, where she is active in the secular Jewish community and has a weekly program in English on Radio Sefarad, the Internet communication project of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain.