By Aahuti Sejpal, MIM in December 2019 ( Alumn). Originally Published in Medium.
First 30 days in one of the most affected COVID19 countries.
Originally from Mumbai (India), I moved to Madrid (Spain) to pursue my post-grad in January 2019. After my graduation, I managed to get a remote internship with a travel startup, which allowed me to stay back in Madrid and live the España Life. Although I was happy to get a chance to extend my life in a city that I now consider home, it was a bittersweet feeling as I was no longer a university student. Most of my friends had left and shit was getting real. Being a remote internship, I spent a lot of time working from home. Some days I went to my university to work, or some days at a café. Little did I know that this was going to last only for a few more days.
It was around mid-February when I first heard of a COVID-19 positive case in Spain. And, in a week’s time, it tripled! Things were still normal, however, there was a sense of alertness and fear. The restaurants and bars were open, people were traveling and partying as usual.
The number of COVID-19 cases started rising in Spain only towards the last week of February. Like the majority of the people here, I too thought that the severity of the virus is only rampant in old people and youngsters don’t have much to worry about it. So much so that, I even went for a group hike to get some fresh air.
Fast forward to 10 days later — universities were shut for two weeks and the entire country was expected to be locked down very soon. It was March 10th and I was working from a cafe when my flatmate called me and told me she was leaving for India in two hours. By the time I reached home, she was almost packed and left in the next hour.
I was suddenly alone, trying to process everything. Another friend of mine who I regularly hung out with, also left the next day. This is when I panicked and called my parents and asked them if I should come back too.
The thought of living completely alone, especially during such times gave me serious anxiety, but my family calmed me down and encouraged me to think practically. I spoke to a couple of friends who made me look at this situation in a realistic manner.
I listed down the pros and cons of going back to India. I knew that back home I would be risking my grandmother’s health as she is diabetic and has respiratory problems. The airports and flights were red alert areas, so I feared to catch symptoms in transit. Most of my friends who went back home, had visas to come back to Spain. My visa was still in process and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to come back effortlessly. The cons clearly outweighed the pros and so I swallowed my fears and decided to stay put!
I reached out to my landlady, my neighbours next door, my employers and my local friend from Madrid who reassured me to stay calm and not worry.
The day after my flatmate left, I stocked up on groceries. It took two trips to half-empty grocery stores to stock up on my supplies.
Sanitizers were nowhere available too. Since I was going to be home for the next few weeks, I decided to make do with soap and water. Coming from an Indian household, I was blessed to have a lot of Indian food at home already, so I only needed to buy fresh food items mainly milk, fruits and vegetables, rice, bread, and the likes.
Two days after this, Spain announced a complete lockdown till 14th April and the last flight to India was the next day. I didn’t take it. The Government started imposing fines on people who went out of their house for unimportant work. This lockdown was a BIG deal.
The first week in lockdown went into planning and getting used to a new routine. A lot of online courses became free and workout apps started giving away free subscriptions, so I started with an hour of yoga every day, which helped me manage my anxiety. I also started dedicating one hour to learning Spanish with free online courses every day.
I am also a certified English teacher, so I decided to take up an online teaching job to keep myself engaged. My internship is still continuing as well.
I have always been fond of cooking but either didn’t have the time or the will to experiment in the kitchen before. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to put on my chef’s hat and cook a new recipe every day. It has been 30 days and I have tried 30 different recipes at home right from a variety of Maggi noodles to falafels to hummus to even local Indian food. Cooking has proved to be very therapeutic for me.
The first 10 days of lockdown were tough. It was a roller coaster of emotions. I had more lows than highs. Every night before sleeping, I used to have thoughts of waking up sick. This affected my sleep cycle.
It was on Day 9 when I woke up in the middle of the night feeling slightly feverish and short of breath. I freaked out! We had been given emergency numbers to call in case of any symptoms. I dialled the first one. The person on the other side of the phone spoke to me only in Spanish so I had to translate everything to him about my symptoms. He told me that it doesn’t sound like I have the virus but to reassure myself I can call the other emergency number and directly speak to the doctor. I called the other number, and someone picked up. As soon as he heard me speak in English, he got a translator online as well and it turned out to be a three-way communication. He took down my name, age, number, and address. After knowing about my symptoms, he tried to connect me with the doctor, but with the high volume of calls, the phone got disconnected. This happened thrice so I decided to call back a little later. In the interim, I had paracetamol and felt much better in two hours. I spoke to a local friend who advised me to monitor my symptoms and call the doctor only when it gets really bad since the healthcare facilities were swamped with serious cases and everyone was advised to stay home and take care of themselves in case of mild symptoms. Thankfully, I was much better in the following days. I believe my symptoms were more psychological or it could be because of the drastic weather changes happening in Madrid. It went from 22 degrees to 3 degrees in a span of 3 days. The flu season had officially begun with frequent hailing and longer daylight hours.
For now, I am focused on building my immunity especially with the drastic weather changes in Madrid.
I used to have dreams of being stuck in a dark room and hear noises at night and wake up in the middle of the night because of this. This messed up my sleep cycle and took a toll on my mental health as well. I started opening up to my family and close friends, who helped me cope.
Two things that have kept me going through this month:
Family and friends: I’m completely overwhelmed by the number of calls and messages that I have received in the past month. I never expected so many people to reach out to me, some of whom I haven’t spoken to in years, some who I have always wanted to keep in touch with but couldn’t and some who are in the same situation as me but still keeping my hopes high. This has been my biggest support system and I feel more connected to people than ever! It is amazing how the virtual world can work wonders at such times.
Social media: I am very “Instagram-y” in general but lately I have been more active because this keeps me sane. I love showing people the positive side of this experience, and I try to do that in the form of Instagram Stories every day. For example, every evening people in Madrid come out to their balconies at 8 pm to applaud the healthcare workers, police, delivery men and everyone else who is out there working for our health and safety. I go LIVE on Instagram every day to show this to my friends from around the world. We also play music on our balconies and dance. In fact, I have been taking song recommendations from people on my Instagram and I try to play their songs at 8 pm every day. So many people have told me that they look forward to my 8 PM LIVE daily. I have also been sharing my recipes online. It is amazing to be connected to the world in this way.
Given the time at hand, I even volunteered for a friend’s school back in India, by creating online content for their 5000 students to study at home.
What is happening around the world hasn’t sunk in yet. It feels surreal — being locked in a foreign land, experiencing a global pandemic alone and watching the world turn upside down.
The Indian Embassy in Madrid has also been very supportive from the beginning. Right from creating a Whatsapp group with all the Indian students who are in Spain and regularly updating us about the scenario to organizing free Webinars and keeping the Indian community engaged to being prompt in replying to our emails to offering free groceries to Indian students and senior citizens, they have been a tremendous help.
My family and friends are worried about me because of the hype created in the news. It is true that Spain is the most affected country in Europe at the moment and the second most affected country in the world but as long as we have hope and positivity with us, we can tackle this crisis together.
I have really valued my time in lockdown because I have learned new skills, built new relations, re-connected with the existing ones and have understood the meaning of solidarity.
This battle is not over yet. But one thing is for sure, we will come out stronger, wiser and more aware than ever before.