Life in the Plague Times

Life in the Plague Times

guiri (spanish): a foreigner, a tourist, usually a white person

There’s an uncanny quiet suffusing the city, vibrating out from the closed storefronts and major monuments. They are big towering tourist attractions that have all been abandoned by the scared fleeing tourists. Walking underneath the massive wooden Setas or along the knavesides of the Cathedral is like doing belowdeck inventory on the Marie Celeste.

The few groups of unworried people you encounter, travelling together, chatting merrily to one another, seem to have been beamed-in from some earlier, less confusing time. The Spanish government has declared a national emergency, cancelled everything for the next 14 days. Public school, University, nonessential office work, a 14 day ban on nonessential travel, 14 day moratorium on public gatherings, cancelling the country’s largest Soccer Tournament, cancelling Holy Week in a city known for its extravagant, wailing Easter processions, in a place where two weeks ago it would have been impossible to imagine anyone would forego tapas for a weekend. Two days ago the number of cases sat just above two thousand infected, yesterday it breached 4,000. The numbers this morning suggested over 5,000 confirmed carriers. Primarily concentrated in Madrid and the Basque country. The grocery store shelves have been raided empty by panicky families in makeshift medical masks. A friend of a friend has recently changed his Tinder profile to read “I have toilet paper”.

The second tallest building in Seville is the Torre Giralda. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have been designed by the inventor of algebra, back when the Moors controlled all of Andalucia. Back then the Giralda was an addendum to the city’s great mosque, and, it is averred, Muslim cosmologists used it as an observatory, to track the movement of the planets in the night’s sky. The Giralda had its highest-building-status usurped in 2015 by the Pelli Tower, a hotel, known pejoratively (by Sevillanos who resent the Babelesque presumptuousness of the hoteliers) as “The Lipstick.” The mosque became a cathedral but the Giralda has stayed the Giralda, except that now it, like everything else here, looms shut. There is something strange in the streets and abandoned plazas at night. Something of having been swallowed by a great fish.

Yesterday I called home and spoke to my mother in New York. She had driven into the city to drop something at my older brother’s apartment. He and his wife are at a wedding, she is seven months pregnant with their first child. “Why would they go to a wedding right now?” I said. “I don’t know” my mother said, then coughed into the reciever. “O.K.” I said.

In Walter Gallichan’s The Story Of Seville, the author records an incident that has kept reappearing in my mind recently:

In 1800, Blanco White saw the outbreak of yellow fever that ravaged the city. The plague began in Triana, and the infection was said to have been brought from Cadiz by seamen. As in previous instances of pestilence, there was no enforced isolation of the diseased, and no relief of the suffering poor. Prayers were offered for succour in the Cathedral … The great fane was crowded with supplicants. As the priest made the sign of the Cross, … a frightful clap of thunder made the Cathedral tremble. In forty-eight hours the deaths increased tenfold. The heat, the polluted air of the Cathedral, the infection that spread among the worshippers, and the fatigue of the service caused a great spread of the fever in the city. Eighteen thousand persons perished from the pestilence.

There is a version of modern thought most often (possibly unfairly) associated with Steven Pinker, that says that we are the luckiest, silliest, least-grateful group of people ever to have lived on earth. Just one hundred years ago, this line of argumentation goes, governments were unconcerned with the democratic will of their citizenry, innocent civilians were victims of inexplicable mass slaughters and sectarian violences, the state employed militarized police to radically curb the autonomy of political dissidents, wealth was impenetrably concentrated within a small and fixed aristocracy, everything was less sanitary, the people were plague-ravaged and ill-educated and there existed no infrastructure to provide relief to any of the sufferers.

The fear amongst the Spanish is ending up like Italy. The Italians (particularly in the north) are being crushed by the number of severe cases that require hospitalization, and do not have enough breathing machines to provide to people whose lungs have become infected.

A friend of mine has an Italian roommate who is here doing a Masters. A few days ago the roommate received an email at 8 PM informing him that because of the grounding of all commercial flights, the Italian government would be deploying military aircraft to bring home any Italians abroad. The roommate had until 9pm to inform the military whether he would be taking a spot on one of the planes. An hour. “He was on the phone crying” he told me. “Trying to call his family and crying.”

Free movement has been completely restricted in Italy’s North. Couples, even those quarantined together, are not permitted even to walk side by side in the street. A relative down south in Rome wrote to us recently, with the unintentional poetry that only comes from nonnative speakers and irregular email formatting:

 “There’s is a really strange atmosphere in the empty city,

no rumours

(only birds), some people waiting in line to enter in food shops or

drug stores (the only stores open in this days…)

Everything will be fine! (Andra tutto bene!) That’s

The leitmotif you

Can hear everywhere in these moments in Italy.”

I am not averring any great mismanagement on the part of the Italians, nor the Spanish here. By all accounts the latter government is drawing as many lessons as possible from the former. (I would not, it nearly goes without saying, extend that same charity to the U.S. response, or the U.S. president. As someone noted recently, the disease’s progression in the States, looks to more-closely resemble Italy than, say, Singapore). Even so, Prime Minister Sanchez has announced today that he expects in the coming week the country will blow past the same 10,000 case marker that plunged Italy into abject bedlam. I have been told they may restrict all local movement in the coming days, save trips to the grocery store, pharmacies, or Urgent Care unit.

My mother assures me that she has had the cough for several weeks now, since before the virus took hold. That she got it in Utah, and it is nothing to worry about. “If I told a doctor about it they would just freak out.” she says.  “O.K.” I say. She is staying at home with my father.

It is a sunny day in Seville. From where I sit on the balcony, the street looks mostly empty. Through the windows you can still hear private people having private lives.  Everything is shut. Somewhere a dog barks. 5,700 cases and counting.


About the Author

Jesse Salvo’s short fiction has been featured in BULL and Cowboy Jamboree. He spent three years as an at-large contributor for and The Portalist. His first novel Born Secrets is represented by Nordlyset Agency. He lives and works in Seville, Spain.