El Campo High School graduate Alana Meek has been living in Spain for the past 12 years and was scheduled to move back home with her husband Luis Serrano and their 22-month-old son Samuel this month. But, for now, they are on lock-down because of the Coronavirus. She reached out to the El Campo Leader-News to share her story and the seriousness of the virus.
“Hopefully my experience would help someone in my hometown,” she said. “Above all, please take this virus seriously; wash your hands, avoid large crowds and stay at home if you can. It can only be beat collectively.”
Meek and her family are currently staying with her in-laws.
“We are living with his parents in the south of Spain, because we are (were) in the process of moving back to Texas; El Campo to be exact,” Meek said. “We moved from Madrid to Algeciras and decided to spend some months with his parents when the Coronavirus happened. Spain is the second-most hit European country behind Italy.”
The Virus Spreads
As of Thursday morning, Spain had over 10,000 positive cases and 533 deaths.
“And the numbers only rise each day,” she said. “Things became serious in Spain around the beginning of March. On Saturday, March 14, the president of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, took emergency measures granted by the Spanish constitution to enforce a nationwide lock-down that would be effective on Sunday, March 15.”
While France and Germany were banning gatherings up to 1,000 people, Spain did not, which Meek believes was a grave mistake.
“The Spanish Health Ministry reassured us we did not yet have the number of positive cases to be that serious and was not banning any large gathering,” she said. “On Sunday, March 8, cities all over Spain held marches or protests for International Women’s Day. It was reported that 120,000 people took to the streets in Madrid. The community of Madrid, which is one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain, has the most positive cases and deaths in all of Spain. The next day after the march, Monday, March 9, the number of positive cases doubled in the Madrid capital. There were some 200 cases before, and after the protest, the numbers shot up to 450 in 24 hours. The doctors and experts have said this march should never have been allowed to happen.”
Schools in the community of Madrid closed March 9 and a self-quarantine was imposed two days later.
“Then, on Friday, March 13, the government decided to close schools in all of Spain for two weeks, effective Monday, March 16,” she said. “What happened was more panic. We began to fear a nationwide lock-down. Many people in Madrid have summer houses in eastern and southern Spain. Thus, people took to the highways on Friday, March 13 after work to go to their summer homes. The highways became so congested it resembled traffic during August when everyone takes vacation. Thus, many Madrileños went to their beach houses ... and took the virus with them. The next day, the hospitals in Madrid reported a decrease in the number of positive cases, but now there was an increase in the number positive cases in the eastern and southern regions of Spain.
The next night, Saturday, March 14, the president of Spain mandated a nationwide lock-down or quarantine to restrict people to their homes by law. People were not taking the advised self-quarantine seriously enough, but it was counter-productive because millions of people had already left Madrid for other regions of Spain, which had lower positive cases.”
Now residents are only allowed to leave their home to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy and must have receipts to prove this.
“The local police patrol the city and hand out fines to those who are outside for other purposes,” she said. “One can be fined anywhere from 100 to 1,000 Euros and up to one year in jail for disobeying the law.”
Working outside the home, however, is allowed. People can travel to and from work.
“Some people are able to work from home, and this is being encouraged, but there are some businesses in which people are not able to work from home, or their bosses will simply not allow them.”
As far as travel outside the country, borders with Portugal and France are closed. Border checks are made for everyone entering the country and the Spanish nationals and permanent residents are allowed to return to Spain.
“Flights are operating; our airspace is open and right now, there are no plans to close it,” Meek said. “The highways are open to commercial trucks, such as those delivering food and materials.”
Flattening The Curve
According to Meek, Spain will be on lock-down for 15 days.
“Thus, on Sunday, March 29, the government will tell us if this lock-down has been effective in flattening the virus curve, the number of positive cases and deaths going down, or if it will need to be extended,” she said. “Most likely, it will be extended. I say this because we look to Italy, and they have been on lock-down for 11 days or so, and still have not hit the peak of the virus. They currently have over 31,000 positive cases and 3,400 deaths, and the numbers are rising. The Italian government just extended their lock-down to April 3. Spain currently has 16,000 positive cases and 830 deaths, and the numbers rise each day. Also, Spain is not testing people with mild symptoms. We are only testing people with grave symptoms. Thus, the numbers do not reflect reality.”
Meek’s in-laws live in a plaza with a balcony and the space is a little tight with so many people living in one unit.
“Houses are smaller in Spain than in the USA; many people do not have backyards,” she said. “Please recognize the luxury you are living in right now. I would love to feel the grass between my toes, to run around in a yard for exercise, to be able to go to another part of the house and not hear everyone’s conversations or the television.”
Finding room to store extra supplies and food is also challenging.
“Homes in Spain are much smaller than in the US, as is our capacity to store food. We have smaller refrigerators and cupboards,” she said. “However, since the lock-down began, there has never been a problem of getting food. There is still food on the shelves in Spain. The grocery stores have now introduced their own measures. They hand out plastic gloves to everyone entering, have marked off the appropriate social distance on the floor so you know where to stand in line, and monitor the number of people entering and leaving the store. The cashiers also disinfect the conveyor belt every time after they check out a customer, and local citizens are very conscious about not congregating in line and respecting social distance.”
They are trying to keep the in-laws from possibly contaminating Meek and her family is a chore.
“When they (in-laws) get home from work, they immediately wash their hands, change their clothes, and we disinfect the door knobs and light switches ... anything they have touched, after they enter the house. They are not allowed to hug Sam until they have changed their clothes and disinfected.”
Her in-laws also do the shopping at the grocery store and pharmacy after they get off work.
“This is so we can minimize the risk of Luis and I leaving the house; they already have to leave the house for work, so they also do the shopping. Luis and I do the cleaning in the house,” she said. “They are already stressed by the fact that they have to go to work, so Luis and I maintain the house while they secure the outside resources.”
Emotions Run High
Emotions are high for Meek and her husband as well.
“I think I am more emotional than anyone in the house. This is because I wish I could be home right now with my family in El Campo, but I cannot leave Luis behind,” she said. “A couple of days before the lock-down was put into place, after the Trump announcement that travel from the USA - Europe was banned for anyone who is not a US citizen or permanent resident, I was considering leaving Spain with Sam, but when I thought about leaving Luis behind, I was sick to my stomach. He was telling me to go, but I am staying, because I do not want to separate the family.”
The anxiety is so high, that she can no longer watch the news either.
“It produces even more anxiety in me. For instance, in Madrid on Monday, March 16, there was a death every 16 minutes in the hospital,” she said. “The numbers are only going to rise. It is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Hospitals have also reached their capacity and health supplies have dwindled.
“There are no more masks to be found in Spain,” she said. “People are having to sew masks out of cloth. The doctors need robes; some are having to protect themselves by wrapping a trash bag around their clothes. Doctors are having to re-wear masks worn by their colleagues. We need more respirators or breathing machines. The ICU units are becoming maxed out. Now large hotels are turning into hospitals. This happened in just 10 days from the onset of the alarm sounding on Monday, March 9.”
‘The economy has also been hard hit.
“Spain’s economy still has not fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2008, and there is still a lot of unemployment, pre-Coronavirus,” she said. “Everything Spain built in 10 years, has been destroyed in 15 days ... the economic level we finally reached, has now plummeted to levels during the last economic crisis.”
But she says one thing remains strong and that is the people.
“However, the community is coming together like I have never seen nor experienced. At 8 p.m., all across Spain, people gather on their balconies to clap and cheer. They are applauding the medical professionals, the police, and the supermarket workers,” she said. “Going outside at 8 p.m. every day is the highlight of my day. It is gets me through the night to the next day, until we can all come together on our balconies and encourage each other that we are stronger than we think, that we can make it through another day of lock-down. It is a very emotional experience. The other day, I could see my neighbor standing at her window, across the plaza. I waved to her. She waved back. It was the highlight of my morning. Feeling human contact; it is what we crave most when isolated from others.”
“The virus does cause a lot of anxiety, but I feel it is worse not knowing or not being prepared for the reality of it,” she said. “Hopefully, sharing my story from afar and being a native of El Campo would help people to begin to take more precautions.”
Meek wants fellow El Campoans to know this is “no joke. This is not meant to scare you, but to make you aware. It will happen in the US if measures are not taken now. So what can you do? Take heed to what is happening in other countries and learn from them. The USA has an advantage that the crisis is not to the level of Italy or Spain, but you do not have much time. Use this time wisely. Self-quarantine. Stay at home if you think you have the virus. If you think you have the virus, call your doctor and await their instructions. Do not go to the hospital because you risk spreading it to others.”
Tips To Stay Safe
Here are some other tips Meek shared:
• Advocate for earlier testing, not just those with grave symptoms. This is the problem in Spain right now. The numbers do not reflect the reality.
• Do not congregate and avoid large crowds.
Remember that the supermarket will not run out of food. Think about the elderly and persons with compromised immune systems; help them get their groceries so they do not have to leave the house. When you are in the grocery store, put distance between yourself and the next person. If there is a long line, go home. It is not worth your health to wait in a crowded line, with someone who could potentially have the virus.
• Try to go to the store when the majority of people are not in the store; not at 5 p.m. after work.
• Gloves are a must in the supermarket. If you find masks, gloves, or hand sanitizer, treat it like precious gold. The entire country of Spain has no masks.
• Wash your hands frequently.
“Remember it is a collective effort - the sooner we all come together to beat this virus, the faster we go back to life as we used to know it,” she said. “Many more people are going to die and become infected with the virus until then. Please do not let their deaths be in vain - do something - self-quarantine, wash your hands, stay away from crowds, work from home and do not have your children in school. The sooner we all do this as a community, the faster we return to our normal life. The longer we delay it, the longer we prolong the virus.”
Meek is the daughter of Sharon and Alan Meek of El Campo. In 2002, the Leader-News did a feature story on Meek after her return from studying abroad in Spain.
“A trip that changed my life, and hence one of the reasons I returned to Spain in 2008 to study a master’s, then to work, and here I am today,” she said.
While living in Spain, Meek worked in Madrid for an American non-profit organization that provides study, high school and teach-abroad programs in Spain. She was program coordinator for a teach abroad program that brought over 600 Americans to Spain to teach in the public schools in the community of Madrid.
“I worked closely with the Madrid regional government to build the program from 2013. I left it in 2019 to become a stay-at-home mom, and also to organize the move back home. Prior to that position, I worked for another Spanish company which brought Americans to teach in semi-private schools in Madrid. I have always worked in International Education, in Spain and in the US.”
Her husband is from southern Spain. He moved to Madrid in 2010, during the financial crisis, and is a former welder.