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LETTER FROM AFAR

Why a Northampton family is staying put in Spain

A delivery man wearing a face mask walked in an empty Plaza Mayor square in Madrid, Spain on March 20.
A delivery man wearing a face mask walked in an empty Plaza Mayor square in Madrid, Spain on March 20.Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

MADRID — We’re 3,500 miles from home, across an ocean, with two small children. We’re only supposed to leave our apartment to buy food or medicine in a city where coronavirus cases — and deaths — are blooming daily, in a country locked down for at least two weeks, and almost certainly longer. We have no family here, no local support network besides the casual acquaintances we’ve made over the past seven months and a couple of friends a 90-minute train ride away. Most of our stuff is packed away in our house in Western Massachusetts.

Despite it all, we’re staying put, at least for now.

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The plan was to be in Spain for 10 months, from August to June, while my wife did research as part of an academic sabbatical. Things started out fine, apart from a slightly fraught transition to preschool here, and our 5-year-old’s recurrent propensity for ear infections that we thought had passed. But the kids quickly became fluent in the language at preschool. We saw sights and went to museums, the theater, and soccer games; explored the neighborhoods; frequented restaurants and cafes. Now those places are shut down and we’re homebound, working in shifts while trying to maintain a schedule and structure for the boys. That seems preferable to the alternative.

It’s not just the hassle and expense of packing up our apartment here and buying last-minute plane tickets as airlines slash the number of flights, or the likelihood of being screened or quarantined when we arrive at a US airport where news reports suggest chaos has reigned over the international arrivals terminals. The biggest argument against returning home is the thick blanket of uncertainty about what’s really happening with COVID-19 in the United States — and our lack of confidence in the American response so far.

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Spain now has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Europe, after Italy. Yet the scope of the problem here seems clear enough. In the United States, it’s anyone’s guess. The haphazard approach to testing for coronavirus, and the shortage of test kits, means it’s impossible to know the full extent of the situation. There have been inconsistent messages about minimizing the spread of the virus — practice social distancing and avoid crowds, but sure, it’s fine to go out for dinner or plan a vacation if you’re healthy — and a steady stream of contradictory, and often false, information coming from a White House that has only recently come around to taking the pandemic seriously, after weeks of seeking to maximize political gain by minimizing the gravity of the situation. It’s all too likely that we could arrive home to find ourselves in far worse circumstances, where the outbreak is still ramping up and a shortage of medical supplies and protective equipment is all but certain to exacerbate the effects of a disease that experts say has the potential to overrun hospitals.

The lockdown here isn’t easy. It’s hard to explain to a 2-year-old why he can’t play outside anymore when he’s standing at the door holding his jacket with tears brimming in his eyes. Staying indoors so much makes all of us tired and punchy. Now that the novelty of spending all day at home has worn off, tedium has set in, coupled with stress. There’s an eerie, apocalyptic feel when we venture out to buy food, and there’s an air of tension on the streets as passersby give each other wide berths and shifty looks. The police are reportedly urging people who are out and about to go home (though we haven’t seen that first-hand in our neighborhood), and those outside without a legitimate reason can be fined or even arrested.

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That sounds drastic, especially for a country barely 45 years removed from dictatorship, but the Spanish government has come under criticism for not acting quickly enough. There’s some justification in that: Permitting 120,000 people to march through Madrid for International Women’s Day a week before locking down all of Spain looks like a bad choice in retrospect. Yet events have developed at disorienting speed, and the authorities are taking the pandemic seriously now. So are most other people here, in recognition that coronavirus is a deadly serious public health issue, and the lockdown is a shared sacrifice necessary to stop the spread of the infection and to protect the populations most vulnerable to it. There’s a sense that the sooner people get with the program, the faster life can return to normal in a country that lives so much of it out of the house.

The result is a real feeling of in-this-together solidarity, despite the palpable anxiety. After a spurt of panic-buying last week, markets are restocking. Preschool closed by sending us home with a packet of worksheets for the 5-year-old, and has been posting suggested activities on its Intranet. My gym e-mailed tips for exercising at home. The lower-division suburban Madrid soccer club Rayo Majadahonda shared on Twitter a list of 70 activities to do inside with kids. Sunday’s copy of the El País newspaper came with a wraparound from the Ministry of Health that read, “#Este virus lo paramos unidos” (“we will stop this virus together”), and a social media organizing campaign brings people to their windows and balconies each night to applaud the health, sanitation, and emergency workers continuing to do their jobs during the lockdown. It’s genuinely moving to hear the sound of clapping as it ripples up and down the empty streets.

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No doubt we’d find a similar feeling of community wherever we were — we have great neighbors in Northampton, and also a yard where the kids could play while maintaining social distancing. But Madrid at the moment feels safer and more orderly than what’s going on back home. If social distancing turns out to be necessary for months, or longer, we’ll obviously have to reconsider — we can’t stay in Spain indefinitely. For now, though, we’d rather be locked down in a coronavirus epicenter that is making strides toward flattening the curve than taking our chances someplace where prolonged inaction and mixed messages mean the curve is about to explode — even if we have to postpone the comforts of home.