MADRID: Hugo Rodriguez runs a Madrid pizza business. But he’s shut most of his outlets, and geared up the only one still open to feed doctors and nurses who are working round the clock to keep Spain’s coronavirus crisis in check.

Spain went into lockdown on March 14, and the Grosso Napoletano chain that he co-founded began delivering to hospitals a few days later. Since rebranded Food4Heroes, the initiative he launched with that gesture is now established in several major cities.

“One time, I went to Gregorio Maranon hospital, and a single doctor came down,” Rodriguez recalls of one of the first deliveries he made.

“He looked at me, crying. Neither of us will forget that moment. It was like we were hugging,” Rodriguez recalled. “It’s meant a great deal to me; I feel we business people have a responsibility.”

Spain’s medics are on the global frontline of the pandemic. The virus has killed more than 9,000 in the country — only Italy’s death toll is higher — and confirmed cases have risen above 100,000. The around 40 pizzas Rodriguez now makes free of charge for medical staff every day are delivered by volunteer couriers including Jose Maria Carrero Castano.

“I’m not doing much compared to (healthcare staff),” said the 30-year old, who has swapped delivering parcels for taking food to hospitals, full time. “We try to raise their spirits a bit, make them feel supported.” With Spain’s bars and restaurants all closed to customers due to the lockdown, Food4Heroes has drawn support from brands including Aloha Poke, Papa John’s, Coca-Cola, and Danone and now also operates in Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia and Malaga.

In Madrid, participating restaurants, cafes, caterers and couriers are divided into five groups, with the public postal service — Carrero Castano’s employer — providing vans and fuel.

Deliveries are contact-free, and companies supply masks, gloves, and sanitiser to volunteers. Grosso Napoletano chef Flavio Russo moved to Spain two years ago from Naples. His family there worry about the situation in Madrid, which has been hit hard by the epidemic.

“My mother would prefer it if I came back,” said Russo, who is staying put, and working seven days a week and longer-than-usual hours to keep up with demand.

“Each one of us brings our little grain of sand,” Rodriguez said. “Our chefs pick the toppings of medics’ pizzas as they prepare them. People have asked if they can donate homemade cakes.” “There’s this very lovely feeling that everyone forgets who they are... and works together to get out of this as soon as possible.”

Published in Dawn, April 2nd, 2020