Life Under Lockdown: Here’s a Glimpse of What’s Coming for You, America

It’s only day three, but it feels like day 30.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Madrid empty during the coronavirus outbreak
Madrid, and all of Spain, is a virtual ghost town amid a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus in its fastest-growing epicenter on March 15. Oscar del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images

MADRID—I realized the total lockdown in Spain was serious when I got pulled over by the cops while taking out the trash.

I’d taken the dog down, too, and the kids, since they hadn’t been outside in days. It was midnight—right after we finished dinner—and I figured they could carry a trash bag and get a breath of air. The dog had barely peed when the patrol car did a U-turn, blue lights flashing. I explained that I needed helpers with the trash bags (and, let’s be honest, recycling all the bottles). “No hay excusas, caballero,” the officer told me. “Kids inside.” We were lucky; fines for violating the lockdown can go as high as 30,000 euros.

It’s day three, but feels like day 30, of a nationwide shutdown meant to curb, if not arrest, the spread of coronavirus in what has now become one of the worst-hit countries in the outbreak. Confirmed cases in Spain are up to 11,681, with 525 deaths—scratch that: Since I started writing, cases are up to 13,716 and deaths to 558. The curve is steeper than Italy’s.

The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told a near-empty parliament Wednesday morning that the “worst is yet to come.” His wife has already tested positive for the coronavirus; King Felipe, who will address the nation Wednesday evening, has been tested as well, through his came up negative. There’s no Liga soccer matches; the Real Madrid team is in quarantine, which, given how they’ve been playing, is probably for the best. There’s no Holy Week in Seville, no Fallas in Valencia.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

It’s a glimpse of what’s coming for you, if it hasn’t already. Italy’s been shut down for weeks; France started Monday. Some cities in the United States are already there; the rest will be, sooner or later. Nobody knows for how long. Spain’s state of emergency was announced as a 15-day measure. The day it was announced, the government said it would go longer. Health experts say near-total shutdown might be needed until a vaccine for the new coronavirus is ready. That could be next year.

Since I work from home anyway, I figured a lockdown would be no big deal. I was wrong. I’d swear the kids have been underfoot all day, every day for several years, though I am told schools have been closed less than two weeks. Cabin fever is getting so bad I am seriously thinking of trying to dig out the stationary bike from wherever it’s buried. Now my wife and I fight over who gets to take out the dog rather than who has to—dogs are the passport to being able to walk outside without getting questioned by the police, at least for adults. Too bad all the parks are closed.

What used to be routine is now an adventure: You need gloves and a mask to go grocery shopping. (Essential services—grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and, of course, tobacco shops are still open.) I haven’t seen any panic shopping in our neighborhood; plenty of toilet paper and pasta on the shelves. Of course, it’s hard to panic shop too hard when you have to carry everything home a half mile or so on foot. Even a half-case of beer gets heavy going uphill. Friends in other parts of town say the bigger stores have a beach-town-in-August vibe of absurdly overfilled carts and soul-crushing lines.

The worst part, for a city like Madrid, and a country like Spain, is that nothing else is open. The city that is said to have the most bars per capita doesn’t have any now. No restaurants either. All of the many, many Chinese-owned bodegas that dot the center city suddenly went on “vacation” at the beginning of March; now they are shuttered.

All of those waiters and waitresses and cooks and bar owners and barbers and taxi drivers—how are they going to last two weeks, let alone two months? The government plans to throw plenty of cash at the problem—maybe 100 billion euros in loan guarantees, maybe more. There are promises of more support for the unemployed. Layoffs are being undone by law. Who’s going to pay for that? Who’s going to have any money to go out to eat if and when anything does open?

The prime minister is right: The worst is yet to come. It’s going to get brutal in the summer. Spain gets about 12 percent of its GDP from tourism. Entire towns along the coast live off three months of insane work. This year there won’t be any. Unemployment before the virus hit was almost 14 percent, and more than 30 percent among the under-25s. Spain was still, a decade after the financial crisis, licking its wounds and deeply scarred; this is a death blow, not a body blow.

In the meantime, there’s not much to do except wait, and watch the curve ascend, and worry about the older folks, and try to scream less at the kids. On the plus side, the dog is looking antsy—I might just be able to slip outside again. But no kids this time.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP