MADRID (AP) — Spain was expecting a bright, hopeful spring of blossoms, soccer games and music festivals. The eastern city of Valencia planned to burn huge satirical sculptures for its annual Fallas celebration. As days stretched longer, cafés and bars served the first outdoor vermouth of the season.
After years of sacrifices and austerity, the country had turned a page on the worst of the past decade’s economic crisis. Even politically, there was certain room for optimism after four general elections in as many years. Some normalcy had settled on the rumbling conflict over Catalan separatism, and a new governing coalition was taking its hesitant first steps, hoping to last longer than its short-lived predecessors.
Then the coronavirus arrived in all its lethal force and raced across the country.
Spring was immediately canceled and so were the Fallas festivities and the half-religious, half-pagan street processions that are ubiquitous at Easter. Now, after a month on lockdown and nearly 20,000 confirmed deaths, the country hopes the worst is over, at least medically speaking.
But reactivating the economy and avoiding political and financial chaos will bring months or years of hardship.
In covering these struggles, a team of Associated Press photographers sought to capture the anguish and despair among Spaniards, but also their hope and humanity. The team was composed of Emilio Morenatti, Joan Mateu, Manu Fernández, Bernat Armangue, Santi Palacios, Felipe Dana, Álvaro Barrientos and Paul White.
They visited field clinics and overburdened hospitals; shadowed doctors and nurses checking on lonely seniors; shared grief while families buried loved ones they could not say goodbye to; and fought obstruction by documenting the rows of coffins that authorities at all levels wanted to keep out of the public eye.
There had been warnings about the virus. Few listened and those who did were not taken seriously. Even when the epicenter of the pandemic jumped from China to Italy, few thought that Spain could become the next hot spot.
Then came a foreigner on the island of Mallorca who tested positive. Days later, a hotel in the Canary Islands — the sunny winter paradise of northern Europeans — had to be quarantined. A Madrid nursing home reported unusual cases of pneumonia. The Valencia soccer team and its fans traveled to Milan on Feb. 19, where they crammed into a stadium at the heart of Europe’s outbreak.
Soon it was too late. The virus, officials later learned, had been on the move for days, spreading freely while thousands gathered for a far-right political rally, tens of thousands for women’s rights demonstrations and many more for sporting events, theater performances and concerts.
Spain went into lockdown when the number of infections drew close to 6,000 and deaths hit 136. As the arc of contagion bent into the sharpest curve seen anywhere until then, authorities imposed what they labeled an official “hibernation,” halting all but essential economic activity for two weeks.
Now Spain has over 180,000 confirmed infections and a death toll that is surpassed only by the U.S. and Italy. But because testing has been limited and the reporting of deaths patchy, official statistics cannot capture the full picture.
As elsewhere, the virus has brought out the best and the worst in Spaniards. For every rush to stockpile toilet paper and beans, there have been many more people who volunteered to deliver medicine and food to those at home and at high risk, such as the elderly or the homeless.
Every evening, people cheer from their windows for nurses and doctors who, without proper protective equipment, became ill at higher rates than their peers abroad. Those same windows became as important for socializing as the internet and video calls. While catching a breath of fresh air, people shared songs or dances and rediscovered their neighbors.
The loss of loved ones has been felt acutely in nursing homes and in rural communities already fighting not to disappear. The death notices in local newspapers replaced ads that only five weeks ago urged readers to buy a house, a car or insurance.
Social distancing has been awkward for Spaniards, who routinely greet each other with kisses on the cheeks, even in business meetings. The noise of lives being lived at fast speed has been replaced by silence — a quietness often broken only by the wailing of sirens.
The road ahead will be punishing. The International Monetary Fund says the country’s economy will be among the hardest hit. Unemployment will shoot up again. Queues will return to employment offices and soup kitchens. And the most vulnerable — migrants, women, children, the elderly and disabled — will pay the highest price.