From Spain: US educator pleads with people to stay home, not make the same mistakes Spain did

Maddie Wharton
Maddie Wharton (KPRC)

By Maddie Wharton

Isabella Zamora, a Houston native and Maddie Wharton, of Portland, Oregon, were teaching in Spain together when Madrid went on lockdown over the coronavirus. They will share their experiences on click2houston.com to provide a real-life view of what life is like right now in Spain.

Entry 4: A humanitarian crisis: the importance of heeding quarantine warnings

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not particularly good at following the rules. A part of me seems to be perpetually stuck in that childhood phase where I do the opposite of what I’m told. It’s not that I particularly enjoy being disobedient, but rather that I’m curious as to why that specific action is forbidden. I’m a modern Pandora, frequently opening the box. But there come times when, as a rational adult, I acknowledge the laws are not to be violated. I can recognize that they are in place for my safety or the safety of others. The era of coronavirus is one of those times. I’m not curious as to what will happen if I go outside, I know what will happen. I’ll put myself and everyone around me in danger. I understand it’s imperative to stay inside right now because curiosity will quite literally kill the cat -- the cat being vulnerable populations, of course.

To me, this concept is clear as day. It’s so simple, my third graders can grasp it in a foreign language. Yet, I find myself having to repeatedly explain it to my friends back in the U.S. I scroll through photos on Instagram of people in an empty park or a lineless Starbucks with some caption about the “perks of quarantine.” That is not quarantine. Quarantine is not journeying out of your home to relish in the now-deserted places you frequent. It means only leaving your house for essentials. And this is where I believe the confusion stems from. What exactly defines “essential?” How do we determine what is crucial for survival?

In Spain, there are only three valid destinations to which a person can be traveling: the market for food, the pharmacy for medicine, or work if their profession is in an essential industry. This also works in reverse; if an individual is returning home, they must be coming from one of these three locations or a citation and fine will be issued. These restrictions are black and white. In contrast, the situation is not as explicit in the United States. The list of indispensable industries is regulated on a state-to-state basis. In states like California, citizens are being ordered to stay home by Governor Gavin Newsom. Almost all businesses, aside from grocery and pharmacy, have been forced to close; schools have transitioned to online classes for the remainder of the academic session. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have states like Arizona. Governor Doug Ducey has temporarily closed schools, but not child care facilities. He is still permitting gatherings of up to 50 people and allowing restaurants, bars, and businesses to stay open. Across the nation, there are varying levels of restrictions and numerous interpretations of which institutions should be deemed essential.

The disconnect between the local and federal government is cause for serious concern. It’s a constant flood of misinformation and inconsistency, jeopardizing millions of lives. Now, more than ever, the country needs a united front. This isn’t a political controversy up for debate; this is a humanitarian crisis that demands action now. Now, on day 16 of complete lockdown, it’s impossible not to feel frustrated watching friends and family make the same mistakes we made in Spain, but with the knowledge to avert the consequences we’re suffering. It’s exceptionally disheartening to inform, warn, and plead with anyone who will listen, just to be dismissed. Everyone seems to be genuinely concerned about my well-being over here, but they completely fail to comprehend that their situation will be mine in a matter of days if they don’t heed the warnings.

My intentions are not to frighten or threaten, but rather to caution and play my part in slowing the spread of this virus. Periodically, I remind myself to redirect my frustration from my peers to the officials that refuse to protect their constituents. But at the end of the day, I don’t harness the power to change the actions of those individuals. I can only share my story and urge my people and my readers to do everything in their power to “flatten the curve.”

The task is simple. Do not go outside - at all. Don’t leave for any reason other than food and pharmaceuticals. I realize a quick coffee is tempting. I understand it might feel like a great time for a round of golf. And I know it’s hard to hear, but a stroll along the beach or a jog in the park is simply not critical at this time. Neither is the coffee. Neither is the golf. More than 6 million people in Madrid have been surviving just fine without leisurely ventures outdoors for weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I love and miss the fresh air as much as the next person, but we have to think bigger than ourselves right now. We can’t focus solely on our personal desires, we must consider the gravity of the situation and the fatality of COVID-19. Each and every one of us has the opportunity to combat this lethal pandemic and all we’re being asked to do is stay inside. So when contemplating your next action, ask yourself, is this protecting my community? Is this truly “essential?” Then call your governor and ask them the same.

Entry 3: The chance to flee

Deciding to live abroad was easy for me. I’ve been in love with Spain for as long as I can remember. For my eighth Halloween, I dressed up as a flamenco dancer and asked for tapas instead of treats. I got my first real taste of the life I’d dreamed of when I studied abroad in Sevilla five years ago. Those transformative six months sealed my fate; I knew I would return to live here one day. I spent the following years meticulously organizing my career and social moves to deliver me to this point. I was fully prepared to quit my job, pack my belongings, and bid farewell to my friends when the time came. It had always been part of the plan. I felt no uncertainty or regret as I boarded my one-way flight. I was lucky in this way. Moving is an overwhelming ordeal and moving overseas tends to be even more so. Coming to Spain was a difficult decision for a lot of my peers. Choosing to leave behind the life we’ve built to seek a great unknown, is a high-risk scenario with potential for even higher reward.

In our applications, we were asked to identify the aspect we imagined would be most challenging and then expand on how we planned to overcome it. I can say with absolute certainty, not one person wrote about Coronavirus, and yet, I’ll go out on a limb here, and say we’d all confidently classify it as our greatest challenge. But for a lot of us, this was an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome.

The chance to flee came suddenly, it was an opportunity to return home that no one had predicted. For weeks, the possibility lingered. It arrived, unannounced, on a Monday, disguised as a vacation. Slick and tempting, the school closures reinforced lack of work and cheap flights as reasons to leave. You might as well go. This sparked the first wave of evacuees. Most of the individuals in this group had full intentions of returning to Spain in the coming days. I wasn’t phased by the initial push to leave, the thought of getting some free time in Madrid was much more appealing than traveling for more than 14 hours to get home. Completely content, I stayed put.

Then came the second wave. Not massive or thundering, but rather with a swift undertow, powerful nonetheless. The damage of this wave was invisible to the naked eye. This time, the uneasiness crept through the city under the cover of darkness, slowly taking shop and restaurant owners - residents discovering more unopened storefronts with each passing day. Posts from colleagues and friends regarding their abrupt departures seemed to trickle in one after the other. The city continued to empty, but just gradually enough that I thought maybe I was imagining it, that perhaps it was paranoia getting the best of me.

With the third wave, however, it was blatantly clear the blow we’d taken. This wave came as a tsunami, roaring through the otherwise still Friday morning. We awoke to an email from our teaching program that they were abandoning us. They could no longer support us and would be placing us in the hands of the Spanish government. Ridding themselves of responsibility, they parted with specific instructions to make no attempts in contacting them about this announcement. The panic that ensued was one I’ll never forget. Phones ringing off the hook, a frenzy of Facebook ads selling belongings, and a surge in flight prices to the United States kicked off the hysteria that engulfed the following 48 hours. It felt like every American in Madrid joined together in a tornado of utter delirium and whipped through the city, leaving a trail of abandoned apartments in its wake.

This was my first encounter with fear in the time of COVID-19. Seeing friends, who had confidently declared they would stay, disappear in a matter of hours shook my faith. Our numbers dwindled and it began to feel like those of us choosing to stay were making a mistake. This is your home now. I reminded myself. Is it though? The chance to flee inquired, revealing itself to me for the first time.

I eluded that chance over the subsequent days as the restrictions on the city grew tighter. By Sunday, everything was closed aside from grocery stores and pharmacies. Police patrolled the streets, issuing fines up to €30,000 for disobeying the regulations, while drones flew overhead broadcasting orders for citizens to return to their homes. In this depressing dystopia, I grew envious of all those returning to their dogs and spacious backyards. I tried unsuccessfully to gather my thoughts while I dedicated the majority of my energy to fighting off dread and temptation. I couldn’t get past three recurring thoughts that obstructed my rationale.

The first was a sense of entitlement. What a privilege it is to be able to afford to surrender one’s job, pay rent on an empty apartment, and purchase an inflated flight around the world at a moment’s notice. This was a luxury that made me wildly uncomfortable, and I wasn’t even sure it was available to me. As long as I’m getting paid, I’m staying. This became a sort of mantra between my roommate Isabella and me as we convinced our friends, each other, and ourselves we were making the right call. We also repeatedly pointed out that Spain is technically ahead of the United States in terms of the progression of this pandemic. We are already in the thick of it. Returning now would mean starting over again as far as social distancing and isolation go. Not to mention, the risk involved with navigating airports laced with potentially ill travelers. And then of course, there’s pride - such an exhausting and confounding feeling to experience in times like these. Am I just going to quit when the going gets tough? Who am I if I can’t stick this out? How could I expect to return next year as if I didn’t just surrender? I’m hyper-aware this shameful line of thinking doesn’t serve me, yet it remains. I berated myself out of entertaining any further discussion on the subject. Then came the final wave.

On Monday March 16th, the European Union announced it would be closing the Schengen Borders for at least 30 days. Three days later, the U.S. Department of State declared a Global Level 4 Health Advisory stating, “U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” This was the wave that took one of my roommates. It took all the people I met at my orientation back in September. It took the last of my friends. I hadn’t been entirely aware of just how few of us remained until the majority of that remainder disappeared.

At this point, it appears the choice has finally been made for me. I am prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. I’m fortunate to feel relieved by this result. I think about all the unwalked streets, untasted tapas, and unsaid goodbyes, and I know there’s no way I could have left. For me, the force of living out my lifelong dream is greater than the fear that draws me away from it. I am reminded of the opportunity for growth that sits in front of me - motivated by the vision of the person that will come out of this, the courageous and committed woman who stuck it out for her love of Spain.

But this decision is convoluted, ever-evolving, and unique to each individual. There is no right choice besides the one that feels best for you. In this unprecedented time all we can do is give ourselves grace as we attempt to maneuver the unknown. So to those who have left, we miss you, we understand, and we are glad you’re home safe. And to those of us who remain, may we find comfort in our choice to stay, strength in our small but mighty numbers, and peace in our pursuit of better days.

Entry 2: The light in the dark

I packed for this lockdown the way I pack for a camping trip. Composing a long mental list of all the things I’d need to enjoy my environment, pass the time, and of course survive. I’m not talking about overloading my cart at Costco, doomsday style. In fact, I didn’t do much physical packing at all - I didn’t quite get the chance. I prepared emotionally. A sort of spiritual loading, if you will. I conjured up everything I could imagine to keep my mental health afloat. A deck of cards, a puzzle, a bottle of wine - or two. Books, e-books, audiobooks, coloring books, books about books. I began filling my journal, experimenting with guided meditation, and religiously watching Cheryl Strayed interviews.

As an introvert, I was secretly thrilled to have this time alone. As a self-proclaimed philosopher of sorts, I was eager to dig into my own psyche to the point of discomfort. As a human being, I was nervous. As much as the thought of psycho-analysis and self-reflection for hours on end excited me, I knew all too well how much we, as people, depend on human interaction and companionship. I knew all the books in the world wouldn’t change this fact.

But as one does when faced with a long road ahead, I started walking. I read page after page, lost infinite rounds of solitaire, and colored until the pencils were dull. I tried to give myself grace as I attempted yoga with immense restless energy. I even literally started walking, climbing the stairs in my building. I did everything I could possibly imagine someone could do alone, before I became desperate for interaction. It was then that I FaceTimed every person I’ve known since third grade, responded to all the comments I’ve ever received on social media, and barged into my living room on St. Patrick’s Day with a pitcher of green beer, forcing my roommates to celebrate with me.

While those of us stuck in this apartment can agree that having each other is keeping us sane, we can also admit it’s not enough. I miss unfamiliar faces. I miss bobbing and weaving between slow walkers on crowded sidewalks. I miss eavesdropping into cinematic dialogue among children reenacting Frozen in the park. On a normal day, the value of these ordinary occurrences can be easily overlooked. Now they feel like prized-possessions I’ve carelessly lost.

So how do we do it? How do we satisfy that innate human desire to connect with one another? In Madrid, we dance. We cheer, and we sing, and we dance. Every night when the clock strikes eight, Madrileños emerge from their flats in the fresh dusk glow and raise their hand in applause. A standing ovation rings loud and clear from north to south. We whistle and cry out, thanking the heroes in the hospitals tending to our fallen. We praise the clerks in our neighborhood grocery stores who never imagined they’d be among the last at work when the world began to crumble. We take the time to acknowledge the city maintenance crew, dressed in hazmat suits, attempting to wash away our greatest threat. We cheer wildly like our team is winning, because in a way, it is.

This goes on as the minutes pass. The clapping echoes wane as the music begins. On Calle Gaztambide, this is when the real party starts. Tusa by Karol G and Nicki Minaj blares from the speakers a few windows below us as it does every night to signal the musical kick-off. The pre-teen girls down and to the right of us shriek with excitement and lead us in what has become our collective prayer, “pero si le ponen la canción…” In unison, we sing out. Our quiet, sleeping street comes to life. A middle-aged man dances and confidently shouts incorrect lyrics, college students raise their ridiculously large gin and tonics swaying to the rhythm, a mother hoists her baby up to the window, bouncing him on beat. At the sight of the baby, the congregation roars - he’s a crowd favorite. We continue in this way, requesting songs, singing the ones we know, dancing to the ones we don’t, until the energy coolly fades. We rock until our cups are empty and our hearts are full. With a restored sense of humanity, we withdraw back into our quarantine quarters, exchanging our daily bid farewell “hasta mañana!”

This right here, this collective celebration, this explosion of life, this is what gives me hope. This is what wakes me up in the morning and settles me to sleep at night. It’s not all the grandiose gestures and donations that keep my faith, but the simple act of being human with other humans. This is the light in the dark. This is the necessity not on my packing list. Although it’s not something I could assemble on my own, it’s certainly something I couldn’t live without.

Entry 1: What will we learn from a seemingly endless isolation?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what this pandemic means for us as a society. All of us, from Wuhan to Seattle, the collective we. I often speculate about what is in store for us when this is all said and done, wondering how we will change over the coming months.

What will we learn from a seemingly endless isolation? Will we get to know ourselves any better? Will we grow more in touch with the person we’d like to believe we are or perhaps the person we’d like to become? I wonder, who is that person? How do they treat their neighbors? Do they purchase and personally pack the necessary supplies for vulnerable populations or do they load up for themselves, even reselling them for profit? Does the person we want to be choose to stay at home to prevent the spread? Or do they carry on, knowing the virus most likely won’t threaten their long-term health?

It pains me to admit I was once latter. Repeatedly interrogated and reprimanded by my own conscience in my now abundant time, I am forced to acknowledge that my behavior was not that of the person I want to be. That is not the person I wish I had been during my final hours of freedom.

I recently saw a viral video of Italians sharing a message for themselves ten days prior. Every single one of them expressed regret. You should have taken this seriously. You should have stayed home. You should have cared for the people around you. I was moved to tears with intense empathy.

The people of Spain and Italy, and China I imagine, had no way of knowing what was coming. We had no idea that the trivial joke we made to our colleague, or the eye-roll infused remarks exchanged with our hairdresser, or the downright dismissal of the fears of our students would be our last interaction with them for the foreseeable future.

If I could ask anything of the woman I was ten days ago, I’d beg her to stop downplaying the severity of this pandemic. Not only to protect the general health of this country and the world, but also to preserve her humanity. I’d remind her of the legacy she wants to leave, of the importance she bestows on being kind, and of the simple good she wishes to see more of in the world. I’d clarify for her, it’s not about whether or not this virus would directly affect her well-being, but rather about understanding that the precautions she’s being asked to take are a small price to pay for the safety of humans everywhere.

Maybe at no fault but our own, we weren’t having these conversations in Spain before the lockdown. No one was discussing the measures we could and should take as individuals to prevent further spread. Not one person used the term social distancing. By the time suggestions to avoid crowds began circling in the U.S., we were already confined to our apartments.

Only 24 hours before the Community of Madrid announced government mandated school closures, I shuffled up Gran Vía with more than 120,000 other people attending the Women’s Day march. Shoulder to shoulder, we were unconsciously contributing to the spread of a virus with a death toll that has now exceeded 600 in this country. I simply cannot stress enough just how unaware we were.

But that’s the beauty of the current position of the United States. You have been given the gifts of time and information. You’ve read the statistics, heard our stories, seen our mistakes. You have watched our example, now we beg you not to follow it. Learn from us, avoid our plaguing regret. Do whatever necessary to evade composing a remorseful message to the person you were ten days ago.

You have been given all the resources to do better than we did, to be better than we were. Personally, I challenge you to think about how you will answer the questions I’m asking myself. Ask, when I look back, what will I say I did to help those around me? How did I practice compassion in a time when the world needed it most? Who did I become when I had the chance to be anyone?

I urge you to turn these questions over in your mind, examining them closely. I implore you to reflect on your actions during this pivotal juncture. I encourage you to make choices that make your parents and your children proud, choices that positively affect your neighborhood, choices that speak to the person you are and have always wanted to become. This is a defining moment for us as individuals and as a global community.

To apply my favorite John F. Kennedy quote to a more international scale, in these trying times, ask not what the world can do for you - ask what you can do for the world.

About Maddie Wharton

Maddie Wharton is a Portland, Oregon native currently residing in Madrid, Spain. She made her way overseas to work as an English Language and Culture Assistant, teaching third and fourth grade at a primary school in the nearby mountain village of Navacerrada. Before teaching in a classroom, she was involved with a number of education based projects in her time pursuing her passion of social advocacy and philanthropy. She received a Bachelor of Arts in both Communication and Spanish from Boise State University where she served as the Communication Officer of the Associated Students for two years. It was in this role that she gained the majority of her experience as a journalistic writer. From lockdown in her Madrid apartment, she will return to writing once more to share the realities of living in the epicenter of COVID-19.