Spanish troops deployed to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: NATO/Flickr

The news from Spain over the last week has been heart-breaking

Hundreds of deaths a day, thousands of new infections; health-care workers in despair with spiking infection rates among themselves and without the ability to protect themselves; a nightmare scenario where convention centres are being used as hospitals and ice rinks as cold storage for the dead.

When I landed in Malaga just over a month ago, there was not the faintest inkling of the horrors to come. The two weeks we spent in the Costa del Sol were notable more for how cold it was than for any fear of COVID-19. 

At the beginning of March, I travelled to Salamanca, going through Madrid — changing trains and stations — and then onto Valencia. 

In Valencia, March is the month for Fallas, the spring festival that is thinly cloaked with a veneer of Catholicism but so evidently has its roots in pagan rites that celebrate the survival of the people through another winter. During the three weeks of Fallas, over 400 community groups come together to build towering effigies of papier-mache and wood that are to be ritually burnt on the final Saturday during “La Cremà.” There are daytime fireworks everyday at 2 p.m. outside the city hall, and thousands gather to marvel at these “pirotècnias.” On the final night, “La Nit del Foc,” the entire city is lit up with fireworks, and no one sleeps. 

It seems surreal, less than three weeks later, to remember that on the Sunday of International Women’s Day, thousands gathered to watch a special “mascaletà” (daytime fireworks show) in honour of women and set off by a woman, Reyes Martí.

She has now tested positive for COVID-19, which seems inevitable in hindsight. That same evening, perhaps tens of thousands of us gathered together and marched through the city streets.

IWD marches in Spain are family affairs. Fathers, sons and brothers are part of it, wheeling along grandmothers in wheelchairs, minding children and babies. A purple parade snaked through the old city of Valencia, joyous and loud. 

I did not see a single person wearing a mask. 

But on the following Monday, word began to spread, mostly from the churro stands that had popped up at the corner of every Falla installation, that there was a special meeting going on at city hall. News from Madrid and Catalunya about the spread of the coronavirus was cutting though the smell of gunpowder that hung like a pall over Valencia.

At that point, there was very little support for shutting down Fallas in the community. Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, and hosts millions of visitors every year, the majority of whom come for Fallas. Planning for the next year begins on April 1 after La Crema, which usually takes place around March 20. Fallas is both a ritual for Valencians, and a huge tourist hit.

Valencians will tell you that the only other time Fallas was cancelled was during the Spanish Civil War. That is not strictly accurate: in 1937 and 1938, anti-fascist Falleras were held, but their memory was obliterated by the 36 years of fascist dictatorship that followed the defeat of the Second Republic in 1939. The Fallera Museum in Valencia holds onto the one Falla figure that Valencians have voted to save from each year — the exhibit starts in the 1920s but skips 1937 and 1938. There is a sad little figure for 1939.

To return to 2020, the announcement was made on March 12 that all of the Fallas festivities were to be cancelled immediately. Cantankerous crowds gathered by many of the local falla figures, many still being constructed to deplore the decision, though the severity of the coronavirus was beginning to sink in to local consciousness.

The week that followed the cancellation of Fallas will always stand out for me as the beginning of my own understanding of the speed of change in the time of coronavirus. Less than 48 hours after the cancellation, the entire country was told to prepare for an imminent lockdown. By Friday, it was clear that all of Spain was going into lock down: the question was about how much power the national government was going to assume and how much personal movement was going to be curtailed. Canada issued its own travel advisory that week urging all Canadians who could to come home. Advisories are great, but mean nothing on the ground where flights are not available, where local travel is constrained and where all the rules change from minute to minute. That Saturday, the rules of the seclusion that was being imposed on the Spanish people became clear.

The Turia gardens, a nine kilometre stretch of urban parkland that runs through the city and provides so many people who live in the small apartments that are typical in many European cities with a backyard and garden, was being sealed off. The command of all the police forces was being assumed by the national Ministry of the Interior. Anyone out on the streets was subject to being stopped and questioned, a concept unthinkable a few days ago in a country in which the shadows of the civil war still swirl. 

In the days to come, the military would be mobilized to take on the work of providing emergency medical and sanitation work. The Ministry of Health brought all private hospitals under its direct control, and announced that any company holding or capable of manufacturing medical products must notify the authorities within 48 hours. Medical students were deputized to take on triage work. Staff from Spain’s defence ministry were assigned to check in on vulnerable citizens, like seniors and those living alone.

The country’s shaky coalition government — the first since the Second Republican coalition government conceded defeat in 1939, and formally invested only on January 7, 2020 — is now trying to get Spain through this unimaginable, unprecedented nightmare. Spain is not alone, of course. These are the times we all live in now but this still feels unfathomable. 

It is just over two weeks since I last walked in the Turia gardens and lay under a blooming orange tree. It is three weeks since I was part of the IWD march with tens of thousands of people, some of whom will definitely be sick by now and some of whom will be dead. 

Archana Rampure usually lives and works in Ottawa. Before the pandemic, she was going to be travelling and writing from Latin America, Spain and India in 2020.

Image: NATO/Flickr