Madrid, Spain – Magdalena Arance survived the Spanish Civil War and she is confident she will also survive the coronavirus pandemic. However, aged 84, Arance is among the population most at risk from the new virus that has swept the world and has put her home country, Spain, under quarantine.
Her confidence comes from the help she is receiving from her neighbours, some of whom she had never met before these difficult times.
Like Arance’s neighbours, hundreds of volunteers in Spain’s capital Madrid are offering to bring medicine or groceries to elderly and sick people who live in their districts so they do not have to leave their homes and risk catching the coronavirus.
Since March 15, the country has been under a nationwide lockdown that has confined people to their homes unless they need to buy basic supplies and medicine, or go to work or the hospital.
Spain is one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, with 29,909 cases and 1,772 deaths. The Madrid region has become the epicentre of the crisis and its healthcare system is overloaded.
In Chamberi, the district in Madrid where Arance has lived since she was born, more than 70 people have joined the Red de Cuidados (Care Network), explains Cristina Domingo, one of its members.
“It was initiated by some young people in the neighbourhood,” says Domingo, who is in charge of coordinating the requests received over the phone. “But right now there is a volunteer group in almost every district in Madrid. People are participating very actively.” Other cities in Spain are doing likewise and groups have been formed across the country.
Arance heard about the network from her pharmacist. “I called to ask if they could bring me home a sore throat remedy and they told me that some people in the neighbourhood were offering to help,” says Arance, who lives on her own and whose family is too far away to travel to help her under the current restrictions on movement.
Domingo processed Arance’s request and found a volunteer to go to the pharmacy and bring the medicine to her apartment. Due to Arance’s age, their main concern was to avoid any risk of contagion. “We have established a safety protocol that everyone needs to follow. It was one of the hottest issues of discussion at the beginning,” says Domingo.
Avoiding contact and sterilising everything was key. “They told me that they would call me after leaving the medicine outside my door so I could collect it,” says Arance. “It was really easy. I’m now spreading the word among my friends.”
However, volunteers still outnumber those making use of them, explains Adrian Perez, spokesperson of the Care Network in Moratalaz, another district in Madrid, that was created a few days before the lockdown. “One of the main issues so far is to get people to trust us because there have been some scams,” Perez says.
The Red Cross recently warned against a scam targeting elderly people who were offered fake coronavirus tests at home.
Arance herself would not have trusted the network if the information had not come from the pharmacy.
“In today’s society, we are not used to people helping someone they don’t know for the sake of just helping,” says Domingo.
In Vallecas, one of the biggest districts in Madrid, they are trying to build trust networks identifying buildings where potential beneficiaries may live and asking for the help of one of their neighbours.
“We need to rely on their own trusted environment,” explains Victor Jose Cervigon, one of the members of the network in Vallecas. “It has to be the neighbours … who give assistance in the first place. If they cannot, then they can call us,” Cervigon says.
According to Cervigon, more than 250 people have joined the network and they have helped about 100 people so far. “The group works in an altruistic way, based on values of solidarity and mutual assistance,” he says.
Some others also try to find help on the internet. “As soon as schools closed [on March 11], people started to post offers for babysitting. In the beginning, they were mostly professional services, but it quickly became altruistic,” says Sonia Alonso, a co-founder of Tienes Sal?, which means “Do you have salt?”, an online platform that puts people in contact with their neighbours in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.
“At the moment, almost every post that is published in the network is from people offering their help,” says Alonso.
And despite being an online platform, the offers of help are also reaching people in their 60s and older who are a big portion of the users. “The age range is wider than on other platforms. Maybe because relying on your neighbours is a more old-fashioned thing that our parents and grandparents were more used to,” says Alonso.
These solidarity networks are not only essential for the survival of hundreds of vulnerable people in Madrid during this crisis. They are also building stronger bonds among the members of the community “creando barrio” (literally “making neighbourhood”), as they say in Spanish. “We have a common purpose now. There are no longer stupid discussions over politics or any other absurd issue,” says Víctor Cervigon from Vallecas.
Now, Magdalena Arance is looking forward to the quarantine being over and being able to meet up with Cristina Domingo and the other members of the network to thank them over a coffee, and perhaps even with a kiss.
“All this that is happening is really beautiful,” she says. “I’m really touched because people who didn’t know me at all just wanted to help without expecting anything in return.”