Worlds Away

From Spain, Lessons on Life in the Pandemic

Are we doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in America?

By Timothy Malcolm April 6, 2020

An empty street in Barcelona on March 23.

"In seven more minutes you'll see people clap for all the doctors and people at the grocery store still working," says Isabel Torras on a WhatsApp video call from her sixth-floor apartment in Barcelona. She's talking about the communal rooftop where she and her husband hang sheets to dry. "Now parents bring their children up there to let out some energy. They're just walking around in circles."

More than 13,000 people in Spain have died of novel coronavirus COVID-19, as of Monday afternoon, and more than 135,000 people have tested positive for the disease that has choked the entire world for months, and was first contracted in December in Wuhan Province, China. Spain registers second in the world in confirmed cases—only the United States has more at nearly 352,000.

As a nation, Spain is treating COVID-19 with a high sense of caution. Only one person from a house at a time is permitted outside, and only to visit grocery stores and pharmacies. Visiting parks is off limits. Taking walks in the neighborhood is off limits.

"I wish I could go outside and have a stroll," says Torras, who has been living in Barcelona for three years. She was born in Houston, attending St. Agnes High School and the University of St. Thomas. Her father is Ignacio Torras, owner of BCN: Taste & Tradition and MAD, two high-profile Houston restaurants. She's a first-grade teacher and attempts to educate her students through video chats during the day; otherwise, she cooks and cleans often, and beyond that, she's seven months pregnant. 

She's trying to keep level-headed and optimistic.

"I'm very religious, very Catholic. Whatever happens, happens," she says. "Someone higher than me is in control of this. But you know, one day you're working but the next ... you're still working, but not really. You realize things can change in one second."

Wondering from afar

Last week, Luis Roger, the chef at BCN and MAD, was coordinating meal distribution to hospitality workers laid off or enduring hardship during the pandemic. After Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a countywide "stay home" order, Roger and Torras decided it was time to stop even those operations.

"In the kitchen with all that food preparation, social distancing is impossible," Roger says. "We decided we could not risk ourselves and everybody else through making the food. It's impossible."

Continuing BCN and MAD as take-out restaurants wasn't ever really in the cards. Those restaurants' reputations are based more on the experiences inside their dining rooms than on any single dish. Roger says putting a dish like the MAD Tomato, or even one of the kitchen's trademark paellas, into a plastic container would never feel right.

Now he's focusing on future menu development, understanding a new point-of-sale system, and most importantly, his family. His wife and children are all in Houston and doing well, but his wife's father is in the city of Tarragona, south of Barcelona, and recently tested positive for COVID-19. 

The 68-year-old is connected to a ventilator in the midst of a 14-day hospital stay in Tarragona, and while he had been feeling better recently, other complications—including a heart problem and diabetes—make him extremely high risk. 

Roger and his wife get an update every day by phone from her father's physician, but that's the only information they receive.

"It's very, very hard, believe me," Roger says.

Ignacio Torras and Luis Roger of MAD and BCN: Taste & Tradition.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Delaying the end?

In Barcelona, it's 8 p.m., and Isabel Torras walks out to her deck. She points the phone at the people emerging from their apartments across the street and down the block. A steady applause grows. 

"I don't know ... you have this psychological need to talk to people," she says of all the FaceTiming and WhatsApp calling she's done lately. "You're inclined to not think about it, but then it's suddenly 'I need emotional support,' or whatever. Thank God for technology."

Torras checks in daily with her family in Houston. She's worried that while her father Ignacio is "a very positive person," he can be anxious, too. He'll want to help as much as possible, and he and Roger did for a while, but then they decided to stop.

"It seems that as much as we can do now to stop this, the better or sooner we'll get rid of all this," Roger says. He wonders if pride is an obstacle here; that if by freely going outside, we're only delaying the end of COVID-19's stranglehold on society.

The good news in Spain is that the country recently reported a slowdown in new cases. It's uncertain whether that trend will continue, but it seems that the steps being taken across the Atlantic are working. It's difficult to imagine such strict guidelines enforced throughout America, but as Torras says, things can change in a second.

As the applause fades and the WhatsApp call ends, she offers one last kernel of advice:

"Take it serious."

Show Comments