An American in Barcelona: What We Can Learn about Spain’s Reaction to the Coronavirus

It’s pretty hard for me to think about the fact that just 10 days ago, I was in Spain, studying abroad in Barcelona. It’s even more difficult for me to comprehend that two weeks prior to that, I was in Italy (Rome, to be exact). I’m still processing that I have to self-quarantine for five more days alone in my grandma’s house in Queens, New York (don’t worry, she’s in Florida right now) before I can return home to my family in Manhattan. But it’s a small sacrifice that we all must be willing to make to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Trust me, I’ve witnessed firsthand what a lackadaisical approach to this disease can lead to. And it’s not pretty.

I can recall the first time that the severity of the pandemic really hit me. Sure, I had read something about it in the papers or seen the headlines on the TVs in the gym. The virus, for the most part, was just a regularity in the news cycle, and I didn’t expect to ever personally cross paths with it. That all changed the Monday before I was supposed to meet my friend in Rome over the last weekend in February.

I got an email from the head of CIEE Barcelona, the company that oversees multiple study abroad programs in Barcelona, including mine. The email seemed relatively innocuous, telling me (and my fellow classmates) that there was an outbreak in Northern Italy, but there was no reason to worry at that time. Two days later, an email from the same person informed us that three new cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in Spain. Those emails became a daily occurrence. When the associate director of my program caught wind of my trip to Rome, he called me in for a meeting on the morning of my flight. Despite his best attempts to dissuade me, I told him earnestly that I understood the risks, had thought it over for some time and still felt comfortable making the trip. What I didn’t tell him was that the friend I was meeting had just traveled to Milan, Venice and Florence.

Let me preface this by saying that Rome is arguably my favorite city that I have ever visited. Between the food, the history and the architecture, it’s a place full of culture and vibrance. Despite this, as my friend and I ventured into the city, something felt off. I had never been before, but there appeared to be an uncharacteristic lack of energy, not to mention a lack of people waiting in line at the Vatican. 

That Friday, word broke that the CDC had upgraded all of Italy to a Level 3 travel advisory, asking people to refrain from nonessential travel to the entire country. My friend and I met up with other Amherst students studying abroad in Rome the next night. The mood inside the bar was somber. Their program had been canceled and many already booked their flights home. When I returned to Barcelona, I stepped off the plane fully expecting to have my temperature taken. However, there was not a single thermometer in sight. After my time in Italy, I realized that the situation was serious and only getting worse. Unfortunately, the Spaniards hadn’t.

Every day of that week, my program executive’s emails had listed the number of confirmed cases in Spain: 14, then 25, then 45 and so on. But the Monday I got back, the message didn’t bother noting the number of infected people, instead reassuring us that no health officials had raised the advisory level in the country. The following day, the associate director that I had met with previously called us all in for a PowerPoint presentation on the coronavirus. One of the slides featured a chart with the number of cases worldwide per day. They explained that there was a clear peak around mid-February and tried to soothe our nerves by telling us they had a plan in place. I wasn’t convinced. Those statistics were only relevant to China. We were in Europe. I knew they weren’t ready for what was coming.

The final nail in the coffin was Abroadfest. The three-day electronic dance music (EDM) event, hosted at multiple clubs in Barcelona during the first weekend in March, is a hotspot for Americans studying abroad and a cesspool for disease. The day after the festival ended, the number of cases in Spain doubled. We also found out that a college student visiting friends in our program had tested positive upon returning to the U.S. With that, our classes were canceled for two weeks and students were prohibited from entering the program offices just to be safe. 

Something didn’t seem right about all of this. I was allowed to live with my host mother, who is in her late 60s, but we weren’t permitted to go to one of the heads of the program and ask about what the next steps were? Whatever plan they claimed to have, it sure wasn’t a good one.

The next Wednesday night brought President Trump’s shocking announcement that all travel between the U.S. and Europe would be suspended for 30 days. While he failed to say that those restrictions didn’t apply to American citizens, many students packed up their stuff and left. The announcement happened around 2 a.m. in Spain. One of my friends got on a flight at 6 a.m. the same day. On Thursday, my program was officially suspended. On Friday, I landed back in New York. 

At the time of this article, six of my classmates are confirmed to have coronavirus, the majority of whom I had interacted with on a daily basis. I am doing my best to get tested, but it’s not easy to do so in New York. It’s probably better anyway that the limited supply of tests is used for those who need it the most. 

Regardless, I have learned a lot from this whole ordeal. First of all, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. The warning signs had been present for weeks and yet no one decided to step up to prevent the transmission of the virus. It’s always better to take action and be criticized for overreacting than to do nothing and face the consequences. 

Second, take this seriously. During my last few days in Barcelona, I asked the locals, including my host mother, what they thought of the circumstances. The unanimous response was that they weren’t worried and that it would pass soon enough, even as the number of cases skyrocketed in their country. That type of attitude is why Spain is currently second in the most coronavirus-related deaths in the world. 

Finally, stay home. This is a battle that is not close to being over. If we stay inside, practice social distancing and heed the advice of the CDC, we have the power to save lives and change the course of history. I know how dire the situation is in Italy and Spain. If we’re not careful, we will be next.