‘We are at the point of collapse’: coronavirus pushes Spain’s hospitals and businesses to the brink

The world’s second most popular holiday destination is now the crumbling epicentre of a global health emergency

epa08327577 A view of a digital billboard reading a message of gratitude to the Spanish health service at Gran Via street in Madrid, Spain, 27 March 2020. Spain faces the 13th consecutive day of national lockdown in an effort to slow down the spread of the pandemic COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.  EPA/Mariscal
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A sudden, unusual chill descended on Madrid this weekend.

Leonor, 45, who works at a street newsstand, sits at her counter wrapped in a scarf to keep warm. She has lived almost all her life here in the lively, multicultural residential neighbourhood of Usera. Leonor knows the locals well and the kiosk usually has a steady flow of customers picking up newspapers, magazines and puzzles. For the past two weeks, however, business has been slow.

Any other spring, no matter how chilly, Madrilenians might spend their weekends strolling through the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, or tucking into tapas around El Rastro market. Crowds would spill out from bars onto the streets; families and friends would embrace, chattering quickly and loudly over one another. But ever since the state of emergency was announced on 14 March, an empty silence has engulfed the Spanish capital - and its 6.5 million inhabitants are hardly anywhere to be seen.

Now, on city’s deserted streets, the odd few scurry between their front doors and the nearest supermarkets, armed with carrier bags, heads bowed, eyes blinkered. Police patrol the streets to ensure people are only outside for essential needs - food, medicine or work. As Spain braces itself for two more weeks of this lockdown, its death toll soared to nearly 6,000 on Saturday, with the number of confirmed cases exceeding 65,000.

Andres, 28, is a doctor at Gregorio Maranon, one of Madrid’s largest hospitals, where he and his colleagues are working around the clock. “You arrive everyday without knowing what that day will look like,” he says.

“We are at the point of collapse - but we manage to contain things by constantly adapting. We have converted many different areas of the hospital into wards - like the library, taking out all the shelves and fitting them out with beds, cupboards and chairs. This is like wartime medical care.”

Staff are using all the equipment available to protect themselves from potential infection - but despite the 578 million euros that has now been invested in new medical material, including personal protective equipment, supply is still struggling to keep up with the growing need in hospitals like these. “We are living day-to-day,” Andrés explains. “Today we have enough equipment - but tomorrow we just have to hope more arrives.”

A 10 minute walk away, the four-star Ayre Gran Hotel Colon has been turned into a makeshift hospital to accommodate the sick - as have numerous other hotels in Spain. Madrid’s conference centre IFEMA, which hosts the likes of Madrid Fashion Week, ARCO contemporary art fair and numerous trade conventions, now houses 5,500 beds for coronavirus patients, making it Spain’s largest hospital.

It is a shift beyond recognition - the world’s second most popular holiday destination, now the crumbling epicentre of a global health emergency. Gruesome accounts emerged last week of elderly patients being found abandoned, or even dead, in care homes; chilling footage of patients lying on hospital floors has circulated in the media; and stories have emerged of life-or-death decisions being made in ICUs regarding which patients to prioritise for ventilators.

The hashtag #QuedateEnCasa (‘stay at home’) is plastered across social media, TV and advertising. But not everybody can actually do so. Newsstands like Leonor’s, for example, are considered primary services and therefore continue operations during the state of emergency. However, because they are ultimately private businesses, rather than state-funded services, the financial consequences are their own to face.

“I’ve had to return around half of the deliveries we receive,” says Leonor. “Our sales have dropped because people aren’t going out, they’re at home worried.”


Local bars usually make up a big source of their income, stocking up on daily papers - but the closure of bars and restaurants across the country has wiped out this clientele.

Nearby, Alicia Martinez owns a pharmacy, another essential service that remains functional. “I am delighted to keep doing my job,” she says.

But, unlike most days, her front doors are now tightly shut, with customers tended to one-by-one through a hole in the wall instead. Rather than surgical facemasks, her staff is wearing screen-like protection, shielding the entire face. These are understandable measures considering that 14 pharmacies in Madrid have already had to close because of staff members becoming infected with coronavirus.

Andrea, 34yo, works for a company providing hospitals with medical devices and equipment.

“I’m on the phone all day to my clients who are desperate because they are out of supplies,” she tells me, after weeks of working from home. Like many in Spain, Andrea is wondering about life after lockdown; over the two weeks of social distance, she has realised how difficult it might be to shake off fears around physical contact.

“We are creatures of habit,” she says, “and although we’ve found it hard to stay home, it won’t be easy to just go back to normal either. Even Spanish people are going to find it hard to be affectionate again.”

Nuria Medina, who runs cultural programmes at Casa Arabe in Madrid, has several friends who are unwell with coronavirus. Some are hospitalised, others quarantined at home. At the same time, she is busy thinking about how to reprogramme the cultural centre’s activities, while waiting nervously to know when institutions like hers can reopen.

“This confinement is difficult for us,” she says, recognising how unusual social distancing feels for Spain’s warm, energetic and tactile way of life.

“In places like the Gulf,” she says, “people spend more time in cars or indoors - especially because of the climate; but here people walk around in the streets more.”

“These times of confinement can also be moments for introspection, thought and reflection,” says Nuria. “And contact with friends, family and colleagues is constant - the situation has made us generate a genuine feeling of solidarity between one another. This is one very enriching takeaway.”

Indeed, Spaniards in quarantine are spending more time than ever reconnecting with loved ones near and far; social media is awash with inspirational showcases of people’s home-based hobbies, from yoga and fitness to cooking and reading; artists and designers are using the time and space to develop their creativity; and healthcare professionals like Andres hope we reflect on the importance of working together as a community.

Lockdown, it appears, has an ability to unlock many things too.