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'People are living on the edge': Irish people in Madrid say the city has been transformed by the coronavirus

Madrid remains the worst-hit part of Spain as the country suffers from the spread of Covid-19.

A sign that reads:
A sign that reads: "Thank you #IstayAtHome" hangs on the front of the Madrid city hall.
Image: Bernat Armangue/AP/Press Association Images

THE BUSTLING CITY of Madrid has been transformed by the coronavirus outbreak, Irish people living in the city say – sending a stark warning home calling for vigilance against the spread of the virus.

Spain has now become the country in Europe where the outbreak is spreading the fastest. On Thursday, the country’s health ministry reported 8,578 new infections and 655 deaths, bringing the total cases to over 56,000 and more than 4,000 fatalities – second only to Italy’s death toll of 7,503.

Madrid, home to a substantial number of Irish people, remains worst-hit, even as the virus grows across the country. 

“Each day I’m speaking to someone who has lost a family member,” says Ciara O’Donohoe, a yoga teacher from Dublin who works in the city. 

She’s currently recovering from the virus. “People are living on the edge of life. Worried, depressed and very scared. Anyone I speak to is down,” she says. 

The lockdown – which has been extended until 11 April – in the country is particularly strict. In Madrid, a densely packed city with 5,400 people per square kilometre, Irish people report that government measures are being strictly enforced with fines and arrests. 

The dense nature of the city is a problem highlighted by many of the people who spoke to TheJournal.ie. Ger Pollock, a HR consultant from Galway, said that “Madrid is quite a packed city and that’s one of the problems.”

People are allowed out only for essential reasons, while children are told be confined indoors. And while walking a dog is seen as a permissible reason to be outside, authorities keep a close eye to ensure the rule isn’t abused. 

“On Facebook, you have people saying the government cares more about dogs than kids,” says Louise Feaheny from Gorey. 

Feaheny lives in a small town outside the city and counts herself lucky. “We’re in a very lucky situation. We have a garden. But pretty much no one in Madrid has a garden,” she says. 

For many, she likes it to living in a “shoebox”.


Like Ireland, there are concerns about a lack of equipment for medical staff. Feaheny says that stories of medical staff having to use bin bags for protective equipment are common, while several people spoke about how a local ice rink had been converted into a temporary morgue. 

The city’s conference centre has also become a huge hospital. 

“At the moment in Spain, when someone goes into the hospital you don’t know if you’re going to see them again,” she says. 

The atmosphere of the local area has changed too. Feahney, who hasn’t left her house in 19 days, says that outside and in shops people seem scared.

“No one was saying hello, no one was smiling,” she says. “There was a horrible feeling we’d lost our humanity.”

Back in the city centre, Irish people say they were shocked at how quickly the lockdown was introduced as the scale of the disaster became clear. 

“It went from zero government intervention,” says Mark MacQuillan, who works for Enterprise Ireland. “Because there was no gradual introduction of measures, it was nearly an overnight thing of ‘we can’t go out now’. 

MacQuillan lives above a supermarket with an Irish friend, but says he notices that things are quieter. 

“Nobody is unfriendly, but everyone is conscious of keeping their distance and letting people have their space,” he say. 

spain-virus-outbreak People applaud from their homes in support of the medical staff in Madrid. Source: Bernat Armangue/AP/Press Association Images

“The quietness took a lot to get used to.”

One thing everyone praises is the daily applause at 8pm, as people across the country reach out from windows and balconies to applaud health workers. 

To some, it’s a touching tribute, while to others it’s more of a social lifeline. 

“My street is empty all day, but you realise that behind every window there are people in confinement like me,” says Malachy Murphy from Dublin, who works in the software industry. 

The only things to see on the streets are the “odd person and pigeons”, he says. “You never see it this quiet, even at Christmas or Easter when everyone leaves the city.”

But for him, there’s only so much room for solidarity when people can’t meet face to face. 

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Like others, he refers to the often poky nature of apartments in the crowded city. “I have friends in apartments with no windows,” he says. When it was hot, “people were hanging out the windows to get the feel of the sun”. 

Ireland’s response

Many suggest people in Ireland need to pay attention. While several people contrasted the response of the government here favorably with the approach taken by the Spanish government, some argue it still isn’t enough. 

“It’s the speed at which it moved shocked everyone,” says Jane Coleman, a teacher from Cork. “I think Ireland is still too relaxed. You’re not allowed out here, that’s what it needs to be.”

Coleman says that for a lot of people, there is a “one-step” connection to the virus. Even if a friend or family member doesn’t have it, a friend’s friend does. 

Everyone called on Irish people to take it seriously, even if some people don’t think they themselves are at risk. 

Now, with resources heavily depleted, Spain is reduced to waiting on the virus to pass. 

“I think people are hoping Spain will reach its peak soon. The health service in this country is amazing, but it has been stretched for the last week as it is,” says Coleman. 

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