Sisters flee Madrid, only to be stranded in Catalonia summer retreat

Carmen and Ana Ibáñez fled Madrid last week to escape the threat of coronavirus in Spain’s hardest-hit region. But for the two elderly sisters, it was not the end of the nightmare as the pandemic quickly spread to the rest of the country, forcing authorities to confine people to their homes.

Cut off from the rest of their family, Carmen and Ana are now stranded in their summer retreat in Girona province, Catalonia, 700 km northeast of Madrid.

Initially, the idea was to limit their risk of exposure to coronavirus, as they both suffer from lung disease. But Pedro Sánchez’s government decided on Saturday to limit the movement of people for 15 days except for the absolute essentials: to buy food, medicine and other essential goods, to take care of the elderly or go to the hospital or bank.

Despite the escalation of cases nationwide, he rejected proposals by Catalonia’s pro-independence authorities to shut off their region from the rest of the country.

Carmen’s son works and lives in Barcelona, some 90 km from the family summer retreat, and she plans to stay put, even if her third and elder sister, who stayed alone in Madrid, might also need help.

“No, we won’t return to Madrid. I normally come here time of year here, if only to avoid Madrid pollution and enjoy the better weather,” Carmen told EFE.

“I am really worried about my sister, who is all by herself, but my son is closer in Barcelona. We’ve asked our maid in Madrid not to show up for work since there’s an extreme risk of contagion there.”

When they arrived last week, the sisters stocked up on food and other basic goods, like everyone else.

Despite the many public warnings, they were surprised to see dozens of people standing in line at the grocery stores disregarding the now mandatory safety distances or other precautionary measures, such as wearing masks or gloves.

However, the slightest sneeze or cough would immediately draw looks of alarm and an instinctive step backwards as people eyed one another with suspicion.

A week later, things have gone from bad to worse as the virus spread, making Spain the fifth most affected country in the world with almost 8,000 cases, a jump of 2,000 in a single day.

Almost half of the infected – about 3,600 – are in the Madrid region, while Catalonia has the second-highest concentration with 715 cases.

Villagers in coastal areas in Catalonia, Valencia or Murcia, on the Mediterranean, have looked on with concern this week at how many people from Madrid were moving to their second homes to try and escape the emergency.

The sisters made every attempt to keep a low profile, not wanting neighbours to suspect them of bringing the virus into the community.

Any slightest sign of the cold, common in winter, makes them wonder if “this is It’, and they frantically wash their hands with soap and alcohol all day long, cleaning surfaces with bleach, to make sure that no germs can survive.

But Carmen is still afraid.

“There’s hostility towards Madrilenians, they might think I also came on holidays, so I won’t dare to call the doctor even if I don’t feel well,” she said.

“But we didn’t bring the virus, we have protected ourselves as we used to do even before.”

Before the shutdown was officially announced, authorities had already suspended or cancelled all sports events, including the football league – a TV favourite of the Ibáñez sisters.

Deprived of their usual pastimes, they have nothing left to do but to stay in, anxiously following the latest news, binge-watching movies or using their phones to keep in touch with their loved ones in Madrid and Barcelona.

“This is a deserted village, there is no one outside. I took the dog for a walk and a French neighbour who normally greets me did so, but they kept their distance.”

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