AMIDST the gloom of rising Covid-19 cases battering healthcare systems in Europe in general, and in Spain and Italy in particular, there are uplifting stories of the triumph of humanity and the indomitable human spirit.
My own brother-in-law, a senior doctor, is leading one of the emergency medical response teams in the badly affected Spanish capital, Madrid, and the greater metropolitan area, where as of yesterday military field hospitals were also operational — such was the pressure on regular facilities.
Seven of his team are in self-isolation after exposure to Covid-19, two have caught the infection and are recovering at home. In our conversations my brother-in-law appeared very restive for the two days he was confined to his home, waiting for his test result. He wasn’t concerned about his own health. Because as he tested negative, with great satisfaction he informed us he was relieved as he could rush back to doing what needed to be done, ie attend to his patients who direly needed him and other specialist doctors like him. He says his team members can’t wait to be cleared to return to work.
He is 65 and is extremely fit and athletic; has worked nearly 40 years in the public sector and has not done a day’s private practice; he lives in a flat in a humble neighbourhood and drives a decade-and-a-half-old Renault. Don’t be mistaken. This is not to say how great a member of the family he is.
Notwithstanding silly, selfish individuals, so many citizens are reaching out to their less fortunate neighbours.
I have met so many of his colleagues over the years and have always been shocked at their dedication and total lack of interest in any material reward. This is the post-War generation that grew up under Franco’s draconian rule.
Many of its members are ideologically driven, left-leaning and wish to make a difference to those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. It is a privilege to meet them, spend time with them and see what makes them tick. They are intellectually astute and excel in their profession.
But what I find staggering is their commitment to their job and their patients. And all this dedication in return for compensation packages including pensions at retirement that are abysmal — in fact, unbelievably low when compared not only to what their counterparts make in the UK, US and Canada but also to what some of our own doctors make from private practice.
If you ask me, I’d say they saved so many lives even before the Covid-19 crisis appeared on the horizon as many of them offered stiff resistance when the last Conservative government tried to cut back on hospitals and beds.
I remember my brother-in-law sending us photos of consultants and other healthcare professionals, including him, camping overnight in front of hospitals that the government was proposing to shut down and working their day jobs as well. Eventually, the government was forced to relent.
These days so many of them are working extraordinarily long shifts in some of those very hospitals. Some up to 18 hours. Last week, my totally exhausted brother-in-law tells me, they were returning home when some of them decided to take food to the homes of their colleagues in isolation. They got out of their cars in a Madrid neighbourhood under lockdown like the rest of the city. Many residents sit in their balconies to while away the time. On realising they were healthcare staff, the street burst into applause for the ‘los medicos (the doctors)’.
The following evening at 2200 hours the entire country resounded with applause and cheering for the healthcare staff. “We were so moved and energised that this seemed to have taken away the fatigue of 18 hours, many of which were emotionally draining, given how critical some patients were. Some of us wanted to return to our hospital right then,” one doctor friend told me.
Notwithstanding silly, selfish individuals, so many citizens are reaching out to their less fortunate neighbours. In one neighbourhood near Madrid, a woman with a four-year-old immuno-compromised child took to the social media. She said she was running out of everything, could not leave her son alone to go grocery shopping and neither could she take him with her. She says within minutes, she got dozens of people offering to do her groceries.
Once she shared her list, her groceries were delivered to her doorstep by a stranger who asked her if she was sure she had the cash at home before accepting the money she offered for the purchased groceries. This incident led to another initiative. The red flag initiative. People in neighbourhoods are now aware that if they are elderly, infirm, immuno-compromised or in any other high-risk category or can’t go out for whatever reason, and need something, they need only place a red piece of cloth/paper in their front windows or stick it on their front door.
And neighbours will/have come to their assistance. There was a delightful video of an entire block of flats, and with people in balconies overlooking her landing, singing ‘feliz cumple (happy birthday)’ to an elderly lady in isolation. Earlier, one neighbour had placed a tiny cake with a lit candle just outside her door.
There are videos of vocalists including opera singers and musicians in both Spain and Italy performing on their balconies and being cheered, and sometimes being accompanied by their neighbours in their own flats’ balconies.
This makes the lockdown bearable and promotes a sense of community as people realise they are not alone in being confined to their homes for an indefinite period of time and their entire community is collectively complying with the restrictions for their common good.
The mention of the Spanish doctors was not meant to be an exclusive ode to them. I know healthcare workers around the globe are striving day and night to save lives during this pandemic. The poorly resourced, underequipped ones such as ours are the biggest heroes.
The news pouring in may be depressing, even alarming but keep faith. The indomitable human spirit will triumph in the end.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020