May is normally the best month in Madrid: it is warm and sunny without the excess of the summer heat. An ideal time to spend time outdoors walking in the city’s many parks or being captured by the light of the beautiful buildings of the centre while having an aperitive with friends on a terrace. This year the mood is different. We are still in a state of emergency in Spain due to COVID-19 and while restrictions are slowly being lifted, the streets are still a dangerous place. Every day, during my morning walk, I observe my neighbourhood, which, with many shops and bars still closed, has lost its liveliness and it has been reduced to an unattractive shell of tall buildings. Now that we are allowed to exercise (in the early morning and in the evenings) the streets are populated again. But people are still going to great lengths to avoid each other and, as wearing masks is mandatory, there are no smiles to compensate for the coldness of the swift encounters. The plan to ease the lockdown in Spain is following a four-step approach. Each region is being evaluated according to criteria that include the trend in the number of cases and the readiness of the local health service to handle any potential rebound in the epidemic. Some regions immediately progressed to phase 1, which involved fewer restrictions in movement and the opening of the outdoor areas for service in the bars. Madrid -the worst-hit region by the…
Home Travel Coronavirus chronicles phase 0 in Madrid: when things go sour

Coronavirus chronicles phase 0 in Madrid: when things go sour

May is normally the best month in Madrid: it is warm and sunny without the excess of the summer heat. An ideal time to spend time outdoors walking in the city’s many parks or being captured by the light of the beautiful buildings of the centre while having an aperitive with friends on a terrace.

Madrid city centre

This year the mood is different. We are still in a state of emergency in Spain due to COVID-19 and while restrictions are slowly being lifted, the streets are still a dangerous place. Every day, during my morning walk, I observe my neighbourhood, which, with many shops and bars still closed, has lost its liveliness and it has been reduced to an unattractive shell of tall buildings. Now that we are allowed to exercise (in the early morning and in the evenings) the streets are populated again. But people are still going to great lengths to avoid each other and, as wearing masks is mandatory, there are no smiles to compensate for the coldness of the swift encounters.

Barrio in Madrid

The plan to ease the lockdown in Spain is following a four-step approach. Each region is being evaluated according to criteria that include the trend in the number of cases and the readiness of the local health service to handle any potential rebound in the epidemic. Some regions immediately progressed to phase 1, which involved fewer restrictions in movement and the opening of the outdoor areas for service in the bars. Madrid -the worst-hit region by the epidemic – was kept in phase 0. This spiked tensions between the right-wing regional government, that was in favour of easing restrictions, and the left-wing central Spanish government that insisted that Madrid was not ready to progress towards the next phase.

The political conflict was soon reflected among people. Protests started in one of the wealthier parts of Madrid, the Salamanca neighbourhood, where people started to gather in the streets for caceroladas, loud demonstrations which consist in banging kitchen pots as a sign of disagreement with the central government. Their demands are the end of the emergency state and its restrictions and possibly the resignation of the President, accused of not having managed the emergency well. The protests have since spread throughout the city, but crucially they are stronger in richer districts, as they are the ones where the right and even the extreme right get most of their votes. One characteristic that distinguishes these protesters is the use of the Spanish flag which has a strong association with the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco. Throughout the country, flags are often exposed outside the house’s windows not only for patriotism but as an implicit message of political affiliation.

Spanish flags balcony

I live in a working-class neighbourhood and when I moved in I signed up to the Facebook group dedicated to the barrio to get a feeling of what was going on around me. The group used to be about events, advertising of local businesses and the regular complaints about the lack of cleaning in the streets (dog poo in the street seemed to be the biggest issue). During the lockdown, the mood changed. First, people started posting their outrage about whoever was seen or perceived flouting the rules. Later, when we were allowed to go for a walk, the posts were about having seen too many people in the street at the same time. These were the expressions and evolutions of the so-called balcony police, people that unloaded their boredom and frustration by checking on the behaviour of neighbours and passers-by from their window shouting at and even spitting on them.

Are many people really ignoring the restrictions? Personally, I don’t think so, I believe instead that the bottom line is that Madrid is a really populated place. While this normally translates in a lively city, during this crisis it means that even if a small minority of people break the rules, this becomes a significant amount in absolute terms.

empty street Madrid

Recently, the mood has become even sourer. In social media, politically charged comments have started to become more predominant, with people engaging in fights attacking the other’s perceived political affinity. While the 8 o’clock claps to thank health professional have almost stopped, during the last week, protests have reached my neighbourhood, with people of both sides confronting each other in one of the main squares. Images of people rolled up in the Spanish flag while performing the Roman salute so close to my home have disturbed me.

Tomorrow Madrid will finally enter phase 1, which should provide some relief to some local businesses (in particular bars). I wonder how the mood in the street will evolve. At the beginning of the epidemic, rhetoric was abundant and many people were suggesting the epidemic could be a chance to bring us together. I was always sceptic about it, and I am even less optimistic now. Of course, there have been great demonstrations of solidarity as many people volunteered to shop for the elderly during the strictest lockdown phase and food collections are still active in many neighbourhoods. But the stress of the lockdown has also increase certain dormant divisions in the society on which politicians have quickly jumped on.

I wonder how things will evolve during the next weeks, will Madrid go back to be the friendly and energetic place I fell in love with? At this moment I feel less attached to the city as I used to be, wishing I could swap the concrete around me for the trees of the countryside. The scarce vegetation of the dry local small park (the only one I can visit) reminds me that I am living in a city basically built on a desert and now I miss the green of my small village in Italy or even the cold landscape of Scotland. Will I come back to my senses?

I will keep you posted!

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