Watching the number of deaths and confirmed cases of coronavirus rise every day is unsettling enough. But what was it like for the young Australians who found themselves in the middle of a pandemic a long way from home? University of Technology Sydney (UTS) student Fleur Connick was on exchange in Spain and shares her experience.
MARCH 24: Australia has now recorded its eighth death and has reached beyond 1700 known cases of COVID-19. More than 600 were confirmed in just the past 48 hours.
I remember when the number of cases in Spain passed 1000. It was a Tuesday and my friends and I were drinking cervezas at a bar, naively celebrating because university classes had been cancelled for two weeks.
That was two weeks ago. Now Spain has over 33,000 cases – 4321 of these were identified in the past 24 hours. The number of dead is currently at 2207.
I write this with a sense of urgency, not to sound like an alarmist but to share my own experience in Madrid over the past few weeks – and why I decided to get out while I could and return to Australia.
Currently, I am self-isolating for two weeks in Sydney, which is required for any Australian returning from overseas travel.
As someone who has seen first-hand how quickly an outbreak of COVID-19 can become uncontainable in a country. I fear Australia is acting too slowly and too cautiously.
We need to act without hesitation, learn from countries and cities which took extreme measures fast and went into lockdown early, and follow advice from our leading health practitioners and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
I still remember the days vividly after our university temporarily closed in Madrid, and all classes changed to online in an attempt to minimise the spread of the virus.
The following day, hundreds of other students, including myself, spent the day in El Retiro Park, enjoying the sun and catching up with friends. Streets continued to be filled with people and bars remained open and busy.
It was similar to Saturday’s scenes at Bondi Beach, where thousands of Australians continued to gather and enjoy the warm weather despite rising cases of COVID-19 and warnings from the government. We were also aware of the outbreak but ignorant of what was to come.
Two days after the Spanish government forced the temporary closure of all universities and schools, the country went into lockdown and encouraged everyone to work from home. At this point, cases had more than doubled.
By Saturday, there were over 5000 COVID-19 cases, and the lockdown measures were becoming stricter. All restaurants and bars were closed. Police and military began patrols and people were only allowed to leave their homes to buy groceries or seek medical help.
Streets started to become eerier to walk down and that atmosphere Madrid is famous for, disappeared overnight.
During this time, I was reading the news regularly, watching the numbers of cases rise each day dramatically and speaking to my friend who had been on exchange in Italy before being sent home by UTS.
It was a draining and anxious time. I was in shock and denial about the seriousness of the situation. I did not want to acknowledge the likelihood that my year in Madrid on exchange, which I had been planning for years, was about to be cut short after only two months.
It was not until Sunday that the panic and fear set in. A week ago, I was hopeful that I would not have to go home but the more I read each day, I began to realise how severe the outbreak of COVID-19 was and how little everyone knew about it.
By Sunday cases were nearly at 10,000. My roommate and I planned we would go out and do one large grocery shop and gather enough supplies to last roughly two weeks.
I will never forget that trip to the local grocery store. The streets were vacant, sirens rung out in the distance and police roamed the streets and plazas.
As we reached the store, security guards monitored the entrance wearing masks and gloves, instructing who could enter. Only a certain amount of people were allowed in the grocery store at a time, and there was a queue of people spaced two metres apart, which wrapped around the block.
That laidback Spanish nature was nowhere to be seen. Everyone seemed on edge and cautious of one another. Madrid had more than 60 per cent of all the infected patients in Spain.
By Monday, the number of COVID-19 cases had risen to over 11,000 and the Spanish government announced it would be closing its borders that night and restricting flights out of Madrid.
We realised if we wanted to get out and return to Australia, we had less than 24 hours to leave. We were fortunate to get on one of the last Emirates flight out of Madrid the following day and were informed other airlines were also cancelling and ceasing all flights until at least mid-April.
I was surprised by the lack of security and measures being taken when we arrived back in Australia. After our plane landed, all passengers were told to stay seated while health professionals checked each cabin.
Nonetheless, I did not see anyone tested or asked any questions even though many people had been coughing profusely throughout the trip.
As we passed through airport security, you did not have your temperature checked unless you notified someone you were experiencing symptoms of the virus or you had travelled to China, Italy, Iran and South Korea,
However, many carriers never show any symptoms. Spain should have been on the list – as well as most of Europe.
All passengers were told to self-isolate for two weeks as a precautionary measure. However, I saw many people reunite with their families at the airport, and I wondered how effective this measure would be.
According to NSW Government Health statistics, from February 22 to March 18, 127 flights arrived in Sydney with positive cases of COVID-19 onboard – including on my flight.
Australia has the advantage of time; to learn from other countries and to take dramatic measures to“flatten the curve” and avoid the worst-case scenario.
However, I fear not enough is being done. I feel like I’m watching what I experienced in Spain all over again.
Last night, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia should be prepared for more extreme measures; introducing Stage One of closing all non-essential services – and for schools to remain open.
But why are we waiting for higher numbers of COVID-19 patients, to take initiate Stage 2? We only have to look at Italy and Spain to see how that approach will go.
I believe it is up to each individual to do their part and act now. We each have a responsibility to be informed, look out for the most vulnerable in our community and stay at home to avoid overwhelming our hospitals.
— Fleur Connick @ConnickFleur