By LEO PLATTNER
MADRID (CN) — In less than a week Madrid, the noisy and crowded Spanish capital has turned into an empty and silent town. The threat of the coronavirus and its sudden presence among the population has forced the government to take drastic measures, shutting down schools, restaurants and bars and retail stores for at least 15 days.
Police drive the streets blasting recorded messages asking people to stay home. Only solo walkers are permitted on the streets; couples are stopped and questioned. Police can fine people who violate the emergency rules.
Everyone has been ordered to stay home unless they are buying food or medicine, or going to work if they still have a job. Many companies have asked or ordered their employees to work from home, and many others have notified employees they will not receive their March paychecks.
Like many people here, I had coronavirus symptoms: fever, pain, headache, cough. But the medical system has collapsed, though a special telephone line has been opened to answer questions about COVID-19. Usually, the answer is: “Stay home for at least 15 days, and if it becomes difficult to breathe, call an emergency line immediately.”
A doctor with the public health care system called me back Thursday morning, 48 hours after my call, to check on me.
Outside, most supermarkets are open, but they allow in just a few people at a time. We wait our turn in line outside, respecting a safety distance of two meters between us, so lines stretch for a block and more. Most of the people wear masks and gloves and do not even exchange pleasantries. And if somebody coughs, fear and suspicion can be read in the eyes of those masked faces.
The city is silent. In the morning the singing birds reminds us that spring is about to begin. Another sound that marks the passing of the time is the phone ring. Message apps and social media allow some sense of a sort of society, though far different from the traditional one.
Every night for a few minutes at 8 p.m., the silence is broken all across the country by people at their windows, applauding and thanking the workers of the health system. Thursday night the appointment has been shifted to 9 p.m., for a different purpose: to demand the king deliver to the public health care system the 100 million undeclared euros recently discovered in a Swiss bank account hidden by the former king Juan Carlos I, his father.
From one side of the street to another, some neighbors shout: “Viva el Rey! Viva el orden!” (Long live the king! Long live public order!”)
Others answered: “Viva la república! Viva la salúd publica!” (Long live the republic! Long live public health!”)
Spain seems to have an older disease, whose spread even coronavirus cannot stop.
Courthouse News correspondent Leo Plattner lives in Madrid.