I’m retired after 35 years of teaching at MU and spend half the year in Spain, where as of March 24, at least 5,600 people had died from the novel coronavirus. The death count will surely rise.

I live in a provincial capital in the central plains, and I’ve seen how the sickness has deeply affected people around me. I have a dear friend in Madrid who has been infected, along with several acquaintances, one of whom is the mother of a neighbor now living in a residence for the elderly and whose prospects for survival are not good.

The worst part of this woman’s life at the moment is not being able to see her family. She is now among the countless patients in hospitals who cannot see their loved ones.

Needless to say, the situation is bleak, and it has taken me and virtually everyone around me by surprise. Like most of us, I will not be the same after this is over — if there is an end to it.

But I don’t (I can’t) dwell only on death and desperation. This experience has given my partner and me reason for celebratory awe at how communities and governments can come together in times of crisis.

There are strict restrictions, by government decree, against movement outside one’s dwelling with certain exceptions — food shopping, trips to the pharmacy, pet walking.

Virtually all other nonessential businesses are closed. Police and military personnel are enforcing these rules, but they are doing so with utmost respect, and most people are complying.

Everyone is cooperating for the common good, regardless of political inclinations, where you were born or who your parents are.

Italy, whose death count is much higher, is close to Spain in many ways, not just geographically, but culturally, linguistically, temperamentally. The deaths from COVID-19 started to take their toll about a month ago as Spaniards became worried that it could happen here.

And it did.

How could Italians, we asked, like us, effusive, social, attracted to crowds, ready to hug or kiss anyone just for being a friend, abide by rules against touching? The traditional Spanish greeting is not just one kiss but two, one on each cheek. But everyone I know is aware of why we can’t do this, and they act accordingly. I don’t call this authoritarian because it’s a state of exception, and when — if this is over — the authorities will return to normalcy.

But by far the most inspiring social practice I’ve seen is the public recognition, both spontaneous and organized, of the countless people, not just medical personnel (some of whom have died as a result of their caretaking), but cleaning teams, cops — my partner’s nephew is a police officer — checkout people at the food stores, pharmacists, building caretakers, all those moms and dads taking care of their children and losing money as a result because they can’t go to work.

Every night at 8 p.m., residents of my city open their windows and applaud; some break out into verses of “Gracias a la Vida,” others wave to their neighbors, others yell as if they were cheering their home sports team. Even homeless people seem to get more empathy these days than before the advent of the virus.

If things get worse in Columbia, I hope my fellow Columbians will rise to the occasion.

Michael Ugarte is an emeritus professor of Spanish at MU.


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