Edificio España and Gran Vía in September, 2020

Madrid Mid-Pandemic

Ironically, the Madrid Metro I ride during the pandemic is the best I have used since my move here in 2016. Some travelers fear the subway now, have sought alternatives. Public transit ridership in Spain fell forty percent this summer; sales of polluting old cars rose. I reap a dividend: the commuter now gridlocked on Paseo de la Castellana in his third hand boneshaker no longer crowds my shoulders or exhales in my air space on the 2 or the 5. I’ve never had it so good.

Not everyone agrees. Sufridores del Metro (which I’ll bet you can translate without my help) overflows with gruesome images of jammed trains, peak hour queues to access aforo limitado platforms, LCD screens reporting scandalous-by-Madrid-standards service delays. I haven’t seen such conditions, presume that fuming passengers post worst case examples, but ¿qué sé yo? I rarely ride at rush hour. Sufridores may know better than me.

Avenida de América station at height of quarantine | | CC BY-SA 4.0 by Nemo
Avenida de América station at height of quarantine, 03-29-2020 | | CC BY-SA 4.0 by Nemo

I can offer only personal impressions. A metro car with ten standees seems crowded now.

The Community of Madrid required masks here in late July. Almost all pedestrians wear them, at least in my Plaza de España neighborhood. In the metro, ‘almost all’ becomes ‘virtually all,’ infants excluded. I remember one maskless teenager who held his sweater over his mouth through a half-dozen stops on the southbound 10, and a couple of bleary-eyed drunks who boarded the 3 barefaced a few weeks ago. Those are the only exceptions that come to mind. Thousands have viewed a recorded confrontation between an unseen mask holdout and an enraged fellow rider. “My uncle died of Covid,” she shouts. “You aren’t riding alone!”

FFP2 masks — the European near-equivalent to N95 — are readily available now. The community of Madrid has given away millions to Spain citizens. My neighborhood pharmacies have them in stock, will sell them for about three euros apiece. They’re not as comfortable as the lightweight blue surgical masks, but I always wear one in the metro. Always. If I’ve forgotten to bring an FFP2, I’ll buy a package or walk.

Madrid Community VP Igancio Aguado with mask/gel vending machine | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Comunidad de Madrid
VP Igancio Aguado with mask/gel vending machine | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Comunidad de Madrid

In mid-October I splurged for a Covid-19 antibodies blood test. 70€ from arpamédica (now 75€), the ELISA type. Results online in a couple of days. I had hoped that I’d test positive. I might have presumed then that I’d already been exposed, am asymptomatic, could let down my guard a bit.

No such luck. The test said that my body knew nothing of the virus, despite my straphanging ways. I can’t take anything for granted, have to keep taking precautions. I don’t yen for an ambulance ride to the ICU.

First-hand Covid accounts drift in, personal stories. L. was the first conocido to get it. He’d hoped to escape to Spain’s north when the pandemic struck, but was felled by the virus before he could leave. Sick as a dog for a week, he reported, and then headaches for a week afterward. His brother got it, too, likely from him. Then S.: shocking to me, given her youth and fitness, a wake-up call. Trim, thirty-something S.: she’d spent two full weeks in the hospital, courtesy of Covid.

Other stories, too many. A middle-aged manic depressive shares with breaking voice that he lost his mother to Covid in April, his protector of last resort. A fellow expat was an unlucky long-hauler, still too weak months after infection to walk more than five minutes. A language buff (attracted to a life in France for neither the culture nor the cuisine, but because [I kid you not] she is fascinated by advanced French grammar rules) was unlucky enough to land in a hospital as virus stats skyrocketed. The ward filled rapidly with victims; administrators designated the site Covid-only, sent her home in an ambulance.

Calle Preciados at height of quarantine | CC BY-SA 4.0 by Nemo
 C/Preciados at height of quarantine | CC BY-SA 4.0 by Nemo

I muse wistfully about the fanciful notions I’d occasionally had about the virus in early March: that the story had been overblown, hyped out of proportion. Ah, for those naive early pandemic days! It would be a challenge today to so delude myself. Could QAnon’s Satan-worshipping Democrat pedophiles have bribed my chums to make up their Covid stories? Perhaps the hospitals aren’t crowded at all; co-conspirator doctors may shoot craps in the deserted halls, debauch with nurses.

I think of the pandemic as something that simply has to be gotten through, waited out, a universal minimum security sentence in a planet-wide penal colony. I chalk up 2020 as a mostly lost year, and know that the circumstances that allow me to see it as no worse than that mark me as immensely lucky.

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