It was amazing to see so much work put into such a campaign in Priorat. It was after all shared widely across social media. Our village notice systems were constantly broadcasting it as well. Even a group of village mayors thought it a fantastic idea to make a video and promote it through official channels.
The “it” in question was the message, “Si estimes el teu poble, no vinguis” (If you love your village, don’t come)
Priorat is a county formed of 23 villages. Falset is the biggest by far with just over 2,800 people. Cornudella is next with just under 1,000. The numbers get much smaller very quickly as in total the county only has about 9,000 official residents.
This wealth of space has come at the cost of population loss and in turn results in an excess of empty houses–except they’re not really all that empty. Great quantities of them are owned by people from the region, often a few generations removed, who live in the cities (typically Tarragona or Barcelona) but come back to “their village” for various bank holidays. And then there are others with no familial ties to Priorat who bought second homes 20 years ago just to use during the second half of August.
And here was the fear of the mayors. The virus was growing out of control in Spanish cities at the beginning of March due the arrogance/racism of the leadership on all sides thinking it was “an Italian problem” or “a Chinese disease” that wouldn’t come to Spain because… Spain is the greatest country on the planet I suppose.
While the politicians were busy doing nothing but polishing their asses, there was the rapidly-approaching threat of Easter Week or, “Semana Santa” wherein people from the cities generally go out to the country in wanton droves to enjoy the first warm days of spring. The assumption in Priorat was that when the people came, so too would the disease.
It was a justified fear as Priorat hadn’t seen any cases to that point and the county has a higher senior population; even higher than the 25% average across Spain. We have the luxury of being somewhat untouched and forgotten most of the time as the region has never been terribly wealthy and despite being just 40km from Tarragona, it’s a world unto itself. We see no protests for equality as is the case in cities around the world now but then we have some roads that haven’t been improved for nearly a century–and even more so for the train. That’s the trade off.
People still came to Priorat though. They slipped in, avoiding what sparse patrols there were as it was impossible for the police to plug every hole, even though they did everything they could, doubling or even tripling down controls in the days leading up to Semana Santa. But despite seeing many faces around Priorat that none of us knew as local, the virus didn’t rapidly escalate, at least according to the official numbers.
But the virus has been here. The virus, has been everywhere.
“Thankfully, we are not them“
This has all been written with the benefit of hindsight because on March 8th I should have been on a train to Burgundy, but the event (right after another in Loire Valley) had been cancelled due to the virus. Clearly, I now realize that I shouldn’t have even been in the Loire but there I was like all of us were just a few months ago, blissfully optimistic as to what awaited–much like those who put on the International Women’s Day march in Madrid the same day.
But due to not going to Burgundy, I then found myself in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport, attempting to keep my distance from everyone during a time when no one thought such things necessary. You could see in their eyes a newfound religious belief of, “not them“, meaning those people who had been dubbed the “current epicenter of the virus” which in that moment was Lombardy, Italy. We were in Paris, France after all and it was fine.
Upon landing in Barcelona, I went straight to my car, drove home and didn’t come out except to walk the dogs while I stayed isolated as my wife was working outside the country then. This wasn’t required at the time but I did it anyways because of the older population in the county and my neighbor has breathing issues due to smoking. Honestly, it just made sense as when you can smell a shitstorm brewing outside, you’d best lock down the windows.
What I thought were a crucial five days went by and I seemed to be in the clear. I was of the opinion that I wouldn’t be the Index Case for Priorat as that had emerged as a woman and her daughter who had come back from Madrid, virus-laden. But they were a one-off. Surely it wouldn’t spread? Surely, we were isolated and could go about our lives as normal? Anyone having a beer at the cafés thought so anyways.
Having stayed away from wine due to some notion that it would boost my immune system, I opened up a bottle of Premier Cru Fourcharme on the sixth evening back from France. It tasted like stale, alcoholic water and had no aroma. Thinking it was just that bottle, I didn’t finish it and went to bed.
I didn’t feel immediately worse. The weakness was gradual until the 10th day after my return arrived when I was just flattened with muscle aches, a pounding headache that aspirin wouldn’t get rid of, and massive night sweats that indicated a fever. I grew weaker each day but as there was no cough, I didn’t call our local health center until the fifth day after the initial malaise.
Once I called, the main question was, “Do you have a fever” which had largely passed at that point to change up for a bout of diarrhea, followed by persistent nausea that would go on for two weeks. When I said no, the reply was, “Just stay at home unless it gets worse.” So, I stayed at home, not being allowed to take the Covid-19 test and thus listed to this day as a “possible” case, but not an “actual” case in Spain. Much like millions of other suspected cases, I don’t count in the official statistics that may seem high but are reckoned to be at least 10 times what’s stated.
My breathing was labored and if I exerted myself, even in the slightest, I was winded for an hour after. At nights it was the heaviest and I would fall asleep with an impending dread, always making sure to fill the dogs’ water bowl in case I didn’t wake up the next day.
Despite being told to isolate at home, the doctors at the health center did call to check on me each day for two weeks until the main symptoms lessened which had been helped by one night where I slept around 14 hours. I was at that point, “cured” or as I was to find it be more accurately put, “not contagious”.
Given all that’s happening in the world at the moment, I have to thoroughly emphasize that I’m not writing about this for sympathy (although that’s everyone’s initial reaction), but to convey that what I had was a “mild” case. I mention this for those who have been blinded by the stupidity of “Oh, it’s just like a bad flu.” I’ve had flus but I’ve never had a flu like this before and the only time I’ve ever felt so mortally impaired was when I had malaria for which you can find solace in the fact that there is a cure. There is no cure for SARS‑CoV‑2 which results in Covid-19 and yet, people want their old lives back, in a hurry.
Death is nearer than you think
As restrictions lessened a few weeks later, a friend stopped by to pick up some cheese I’d ordered for a few us from a small producer as Spain has suddenly discovered direct-to-consumer selling of goods. As we stood outside on the sidewalk, the van of a funeral home came up the street looking for an address with the guys driving it dressed in full PPE suits from head to toe, N95 masks and goggles.
They passed my house initially but then turned back around to stop in front of my neighbor’s house, the one with the breathing problems. She had apparently died suddenly and while she had been dealing with cancer, the sudden onset of fatal symptoms made it seem as if Covid-19 could have been the trigger. It was never disclosed and so if it was this disease that killed her in the end, she won’t be one of the statistics either.
In a final follow-up call with the hospital I asked the doctor how many confirmed cases there were in Priorat. I seem to recall him saying “a handful” which was about 10 or so. When I pushed further to find out if there were others, like me who presented symptoms he said, “Yes, there are a number but well, we just don’t know if they’re positive cases or not.” Obviously, it’s easy to say that the sun is shining when your head is stuck up your ass.
There are many Priorats in the world still, full of people clinging to the knowledge of official statistics showing that it’s “not that bad” and it’s long-past time to “open back up”. But we do have hard facts now and if you’re choosing to live in darkness, you’re going to run right into a wall.
Do you remember the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier whose captain was pleading for help from the Navy due to an outbreak of the virus onboard, only to be dismissed his position, much like the doctor in China who discovered the virus early and was reprimanded for bringing attention to it? The follow up is that once they tested the entire ship, they found 60% of those who tested positive showed no outward symptoms. Scarily, there are now 13 sailors who had fully recovered from the virus and yet have now shown themselves to be re-infected and these cases are popping up more and more negating another belief that once you’ve had it, you’re immune.
By way of another example, in the NATO KFOR mission in Kosovo, one of the participating governments did a full test of all their 350 citizens stationed there despite not having a single reported case amongst them. They did the swab and the blood test which came back showing nearly 20 of them to be infected despite not showing any outward symptoms.
My “mild” case basically means that I didn’t have to be hospitalized. Despite that, there are lasting effects and I still have issues with breathing that may lessen over the next few months. Or, they may never go away. There’s nothing I can do to really change what will be but I’m just thankful I can walk without getting dizzy now. Jogging is still a work in progress.
I’m watching as we “de-escalate” in Spain, with restaurants, public spaces, and most importantly for Priorat I suppose, wineries reopening. Despite the numbers being good (and as it turns out actively being “fudged“), one has to wonder if it’s too soon, although maybe that’s just me as I can relate personally to the severity of the virus.
Friends and acquaintances are having Sunday meals at each other’s homes with larger groups than what’s allowed under the guidelines and without social distancing. They feel they’ve “earned it” for all the time spent in lockdown. I’ve told all of them what it’s like to go through this and that it can be a lot worse, but they don’t seem to care as they just want to be outside, thinking things are back to normal. I’ve not nor will I attend any of these gatherings until there’s a vaccine.
I dropped off some wines at a friend’s house which I had tasted for an article. She’s in her late 50s and her husband is just entering the risk factor group in terms of age. As we chatted, keeping a very safe distance she said, “Miquel, are we idiots? Are we missing something? Why is everyone else going about like there’s no deadly virus out there?”
I didn’t know what to tell her, but at least we can do what we can to keep ourselves isolated and not just because of being in a remote-ish region. In the United States there are those berating and refusing to serve others who are wisely wearing masks, even threatening them. In Spain, we don’t have this option as the government, in a rare instance of “getting it right”, has made wearing a face mask mandatory in public spaces.
But what really showed the “that’s someone else’s problem” more than anything else was when I was picking up some supplies at our local enology shop. A fellow with a small winemaking project was there as well and asked me how everything was going and I told him about having the virus. He seemed truly dumbfounded for a moment and said, “You’re the first person I’ve met who has had it.”
Thankfully I’m not you, but I wish you well
And this is still the thinking everywhere. My little county in the interior of Catalunya is but a microcosm of the world at large. The virus is simply something that someone else, somewhere else is suffering from despite it being here and all around us no matter where we are.
The amount of people in the United States or the United Kingdom who spoke with consoling, sympathetic words when the infection rate ramped up in Spain were too many to count. “Oh, thank god, it’s just in Spain. Poor Spaniards, they’re really suffering down there. Maybe I can donate some money somewhere so I don’t have to think about it anymore.” I need to reiterate that this isn’t Anglo-centric as everyone in Madrid thought the same about Italy before they had to treat people on hospital floors due to the surge in cases…
But I do not revel in the fact that now the UK has the highest number of deaths in Europe and the US, the highest number of deaths in the world. There’s nothing to gain pleasure from in this. People are hurting and all could have been prevented by their governments simply by paying attention to what was coming. This exotification and “othering” of the virus made those arrogant in their own misplaced superiority the most at-risk of anyone.
While I feel no safer because of being here, it is admittedly far more pleasant to be in Priorat during all of this than say, one of the cities, and I’m enjoying a newfound appreciation for what’s just outside my door. The region is incredibly gorgeous in spring and I’m getting to know trails and corners of the county that I’d never been to before, eating and drinking well, and spending time with my wife and ever-more-needy, spoiled dogs.
There are those who have it worse. There are those who are wondering where their food will come from or how they’ll pay rent. There are those whose elderly relatives have died alone. There are those who have died despite not being part of an “at-risk” groups. And most importantly, a cure in the form of a vaccine is nowhere on the horizon.
We’re all in survival mode now whether that’s being on a ventilator in a hospital or being unable to pay for basic living expenses. We’re boiling over in frustration and in some ways it’s fueling the just protests about deeper societal issues like never-resolved race problems in the United States which haven’t gone away just because there’s a pandemic. Yes, everything, is fucked.
Once we start coming out the other side of this, may we be able to look back to that brief moment at the beginning where we all grumbled about the lockdowns? Given time to pause and reflect, see blue skies in the world’s most polluted cities, and wild goats and kangaroos running through cities, can we see that we’re at one of the most important of inflection points in our history as a species?
When life is arrives to whatever the “new normal” will be and we’ve left this time behind us, I’m still clinging to the thread of positivism that we do it smartly and rebuild a better, healthier, and, humanity willing, a more equal world.
May my hope not be misplaced.
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