In 1918, the world was embroiled in the Great War (1914-1918), a conflict that would eventually claim twenty million lives. Despite the terrible conditions of trench warfare, soldiers always had letters from loved ones back home to look forward to, a time when they could shut out the shelling, the gas attacks, the mud, the never-ending dampness and dream of a sunny day walking to church with wives and children.
Then suddenly, letters from home started speaking of darker content, a darkness that rivalled the soldier’s own. Soldiers were being told that people were dying. People were getting sick with something and dying.
The protagonists of the war had to maintain morale on the front line so letters from home were stopped. Newspaper articles referring to a deadly illness were banned. Only in neutral Spain, was the press able to broadcast the horrors. The perception was that the disease was only affecting people in Spain and so it was called Spanish Flu, but the truth was it was everywhere.
The Spanish Flu was an H1N1 virus, a strain more recently known as Swine Flu in 2009. The Spanish Flu took an estimated fifty million lives worldwide between 1918 and 1920, more than double the casualties of the full four years of war in only half the time.
Nowadays, 2020, people must have the words ‘Corona,’ ‘Covid-19’ and ‘Pandemic’ branded into their life like they’ve been looking at the sun too long.
The Covid-19 virus, part of the SARS family of viruses, originated from Wuhan in China. We might imagine a medieval slaughter pit that surely had to give birth to something nasty eventually. We imagine how a place could possibly make a virus twist and morph and finally metastasize into such a killer. What ungodly conditions would have to prevail?
Wuhan wasn’t a boggy medieval slaughter pit. It was a modern city of eleven million people. But Wuhan had within its confines, the equivalent of that medieval slaughter pit and with it, the gravest danger, the extent of which we do not yet know.
The virus most closely resembled viruses found in bats and pangolins, scaly anteaters, so they tracked it down to a market selling bats and pangolins, alive or dead.
Early conspiracy theory pointed the finger at a virology lab some twenty miles away but scientists said Covid-19 bonded to its target receptor in humans too perfectly to be anything but a natural evolution.
This diary comes from the small Spanish town of Javea in south-east Spain. It attempts to catalogue the thoughts and fortunes of a new generation locked in a new battle with an old enemy.
Soon enough, cases started appearing in Europe and it became the conversation du jour from mid-January. Italy was the hardest hit initially. The usual jokes and photos cropped up on social media. It was almost exciting, something newsworthy. Maybe this would be the ultimate virus, the final molecular war, the one that put an end to us.
I didn’t know it at the time but, one evening I witnessed a sign of things to come. I was returning home from a friends house and was stopped by three police cars patrolling the port area.
They stretched their hands out to ensure I didn’t come any closer and then one of them gestured for me to turn round and get my hands up against the wall. I was waiting for a pat-down but it never came. Words were exchanged between them and he asked me for ID. I went to pass it to him but again an annoyed hand came out as he squinted to see it in torchlight and take a few notes.
He said I could go but if they caught me out after dark again, there would be trouble. I didn’t bother telling him I wasn’t aware of any curfew and went on my way, more confused than I was expecting to be.
When casualties appeared in Spain and eventually spread closer to home, that mild excitement waned and the exodus began. It was another sign that something had changed on a deeper human level, a descent to survival instinct.
People were taking this seriously enough to run for the hills, fly home, move house, anywhere away from other people. They were scared. There were no schools open, no factories or shops. Buy half a shelf in the supermarket and hole up.
The next day, the lockdown was implemented. Bars and restaurants shut, everything but pharmacies, tobacco shops and supermarkets shut. Two weeks.
We switched to good old-fashioned home entertaining. It’s safe. It’s people we know. It feels like we’re fifteen again, sneaking out of the house to go drinking with our friends.
Forget the dirty handshake, it’s now an elbow tap salute, possibly more out of sarcasm than safety. Any sort of touch is considered a mark of absolute trust and a hug just isn’t necessary. We’re given our own personalised glasses, plates, cutlery. We’re given our spot and boundaries are established. There’s even been no-touch dancing.
We’ve become accustomed to everything being closed. We’ve also become accustomed to the patrols of the Guardia Civil and Policia Local.
We’re being watched and if they catch us without a shopping bag and a shopping list or otherwise verify the authenticity of our escape from home, they will have a certain approach to the conversation and there may well be a fine.
A couple of days later, I heard something you normally hear at fiesta time, a sudden uproar of applause and cheers down in the port. And then the church bells started to ring. I looked up to catch any fireworks. Fiesta and lockdown just didn’t correlate. It can’t be. A quick search confirmed there were no festivals until Easter.
A Spanish lad from Javea finally posted that’s what they do. In a time when we are at risk and we have to be safe, the police are still out there, supermarket workers, gas station workers, pharmacies, tobacconists. They’re all still out there. That’s who the applause is for. Every night at 8pm.
The next evening when the bells rang, I knew what it was all about but it was now the third sign of living in a slightly different world. I remembered castaway comments the previous week, ‘maybe this will be the one.’ Was this the one? The thing we’ve always said we should plan for but never did, the chaos and the Bear Grylls stuff that’ll get us through it. Are we going to have to run for the hills, are we going to have to arm ourselves?
A week or so after the lockdown came the grim sequel. The lockdown was to be extended by a further month. This was now more than an inconvenience.
A friend said they always bring in the initial idea with a short penalty clause, knowing full well they’ll tell us the full story after we’ve got used to it.
Social media was full of worthy wellwishers urging us in pretty pointy lingo to stay at home. I feel ostracised for even thinking of getting the onions I forgot last time. I’d be someone obviously happy to give someone else a deadly disease.
We’re all getting an awful lot of work done. We cook things we’ve never tried before, we see parts of the house and garden we hadn’t considered worthy until now.
Then, I noticed the sun hadn’t shown itself and the rain hadn’t stopped since the day the lockdown started. A full week of un-Spanish weather. On balance, I took it as a good thing. There was less temptation to consider something fun.
My phone became a journalistic tool. I wondered if I should try and film something. Not the nooks and crannies of the house. Out and about. But who would I interview anyway apart from the police? I can shoot empty streets, bars and beaches and I WILL get caught, again.
I looked at the curves every day and watched them grow, watched the death toll grow. The curve was still accelerating and that was an awful lot of people dead.
After two weeks, I wondered how long it would take before it was all over and we could start touching each other again. I missed hugs more than I thought. Although social media was still up and running and I didn’t feel lonely, I just felt a little more alone than I was. I wanted to stand with my people against this nasty little virus but I couldn’t.
I wanted to go to designated places just to interact with other people, but when I got there, I couldn’t. They didn’t want to and neither did I. Maybe it’s something about just seeing other humans that makes us feel better.
Other people were doing things I probably should be doing myself, wearing masks and gloves but there was also something people tend to notice more easily in Spain. Usually, it’s the way of it to pass a stranger in the street, make eye contact and say ‘hello’. But that would serve only as a temptation to converse and interact. The way of it now is distance.
In the supermarkets, the security guards make us take plastic gloves when we go in. About half the people I see wear masks but the place that sold masks sold out then shut.
A lot of people get the mask idea wrong. The masks are not to prevent inhaling the virus. Corona isn’t airborne. The mask is to prevent us from touching our faces, transferring what’s on our hands to our mouth and nose, Corona’s cosiest place.
It’s only when we think about it do we realise quite how many times we touch our face in the course of the average day. It’s an awful lot, mostly for unknown autonomic reasons but it did suddenly feel like I was spending most of the day with my finger up my nose.
So, in the absence of officially approved masks, I made do with a scarf. I look like Billy the Kid in blue plastic gloves.
No hugs. We start thinking about the people near us. Could they have it? How close is it? A week ago, it reached Denia, just the other side of the mountain. That’s close enough. It’s here. It has to be here. Who's got it?
That’s when the loneliness sinks in a bit deeper and the final sign. We can’t assume anyone is clean. If they wait maybe four days to two weeks and they’re OK, they didn’t pick it up two weeks ago, but they could have picked it up yesterday.
This had to be true isolation. Still, the sun hadn’t reappeared and even the church bells at 8pm became more ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ than the symbol of resistance and solidarity the Spanish are famous for.
Families with kids were settling into something more like a TV show. No outside influences to help make it work, just them.
A week ago, a young German couple and two very young kids took the house just down from me. I look over their back garden. They came here for some Easter sun but they landed in lockdown. They couldn’t go anywhere and they couldn’t go home. Every day, they came outside with balls and bikes and frisbees and they’d laugh and play until the time came for small people to get sleepy. The parents were laughing and joking and loving each other too, doing what families who live here are doing. Making it work.
It could be an enlightening time but probably also a time that stretches the elastic a little.
In Spain, as with anywhere else, elderly people form a major part of the death statistics. Most would say that makes sense but conspiracy theories keep cropping up, not just who released the virus but was it targeting the elderly?
The Spanish government announced last week that, at a certain number of cases, medical facilities would have a cut off age, an age at or beyond which, people will not be treated. That age is 67. The conspiracy is how cunningly in line with retirement age that is.
But for most people, conspiracy tends not to wake up with us in the morning.
I speak to a computer screen instead of humans and walk around the house talking to myself far more than I did. I need to see the curve decelerate. And I need to see the sun again.
It’s April 1st 2020. My birthday. The oddest birthday party ever. Skype will be live with six other households later and we will all be listening to the “Corona on the Rocks” jam on local radio.
So, until next time….
Stay clean, stay safe, stay with us.