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Lessons from afar: Amherst College professor shares pandemic experience in Spain

  • In this photo provided by Comunidad de Madrid, beds for COVID-19 patients are placed at IFEMA convention center in Madrid, Spain on Saturday, March 21, 2020. Spanish health authorities have acknowledged that some intensive care units in the hardest-hit areas are close to their limit. The army was building a field hospital with 5,500 beds in a convention center in Madrid, where hotels are also being turned into wards for virus patients without serious breathing problems. Comunidad de Madrid/AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/30/2020 11:54:03 AM

AMHERST — As the United States grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, many looking for clues about how bad things can get are turning to other countries further along the timeline of their outbreaks.

One of those countries is Spain, which reported 769 deaths from the coronavirus disease on Friday as authorities warned that the worst was yet to come. The country’s death toll was at 7,340 as of Monday. Since mid-August, one Northampton family has been living in Spain, where they find themselves stuck in their apartment as the country takes steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Sara Brenneis, a professor of Spanish at Amherst College, went on sabbatical in the country as she works on a book. Together with her husband, Eric Danton, and their 2- and 5-year-old boys, the family had planned to be in Madrid until June, but are now assessing how things play out in Spain before they decide their next move.

In an interview with the Gazette, Brenneis described what Spain is doing in its attempts to contain the virus, and what Americans might be able to learn from the country’s response. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

What is the situation like right now in Spain? 

Everything is completely shut down. Retail stores, schools, libraries, restaurants, bars, cafes and parks are closed or cordoned off. Grocery stores, markets and pharmacies remain open. There are very few people on the streets. We are staying inside with our kids except to buy food. There are no shortages of fresh food, water or other necessary items. It's difficult not to be able to go outside — the kids love playing at the parks in our neighborhood — but we understand the rationale behind the government’s decision to lock down the country. Living in a big city has become unexpectedly difficult, however, given the circumstances. 

How are Spaniards reacting to this crisis? 

The mood on the street is tense: when we go out to buy food, people are maintaining a strict distance from one another, taking turns going into small shops. Some people are wearing masks and gloves, but certainly not all of them (we, for instance, have no masks nor hand sanitizer — all sold out). People are being quite observant of the instructions to remain at home, though we can tell from the way our apartment building has emptied out that people who had other places to go — a family home outside of Madrid, for instance — have left. People are out walking dogs and the public transportation is still running.

At 8 p.m. every night, everyone goes out on their balconies or opens their windows and gives medical and emergency response professionals a sustained round of applause that echoes down the street. It's a brief chance to check in with our neighbors and feel a sense of solidarity about our collective responsibility to stay home. Our older son put up a big sign that says "¡Ánimo!" (“Keep your spirits up!”) on our window for the medical workers and neighbors to see, and both of the kids look forward to clapping every evening.

How does that country's response compare to what you know of the U.S. response? Have you talked with any Spaniards about that contrast? 

We understand that the U.S. response has been much more haphazard than Spain’s response. The Spanish press covers Trump’s whims regarding the U.S. response, focusing on the president’s general disdain for scientists and medical experts. Frankly, we feel more confident with the Spanish government’s handling of the crisis than how the Trump administration has handled its response at the national level. Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has emphasized that Spain is coordinating its response directly with health professionals and scientists and that the country will be directing additional funds toward medical research, both priorities that seem to be directly in contrast with how the U.S. government has prioritized its response. 

Spain has nationalized hospitals, meaning that treatment for the virus as well as other non-emergency health care can be coordinated by the central government. This also gives the Spanish government the capability to allocate ICU beds and other essential services as needed, at a national level. The Health Ministry is giving daily briefings, posting information on social media, and passing along explicit instructions on what people should do if they think they have COVID-19, including one central phone number to call to reach health professionals (though I know that phone lines are overwhelmed at times). The hospitals are testing for COVID-19. We are fortunate not to be sick, but should one of us fall ill, I have a clear idea of what we need to do to get medical attention.

What lessons do you think we could learn from the Spanish? 

To me, a central, coordinated national approach has been the most important step the Spanish government has taken. Opposition parties have also gotten behind the prime minister's response, which sends one, singular message to the Spanish people about the steps they (and we, as ex-pats here) need to take to get through this crisis and mitigate the virus’s toll.

I can’t go so far as to say we feel safer here than at home, but we do feel better knowing that there is one message at the national level that all Spaniards are expected to follow. The expectations are clear, we know that our neighbors in Madrid and our friends in other parts of Spain are following the same directives, which gives us a sense of security that the state-by-state approach and contradictory messaging from the Trump administration is lacking.

Anything else you feel is important to add?

We wish our friends, colleagues and family back in Amherst and Northampton all the best during this difficult time. We miss everyone!

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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