Matthew Reuvers was studying his masters abroad in Barcelona when the coronavirus pandemic brought Spain to its knees. He compared his experience in Spain to that in South Africa in light of the coronavirus outbreak and how both countries went about handling the situation.

He explained that the situation in Spain prior to lockdown was relaxed but that certain restrictions were in place.

“The situation prior to lockdown was similar to as it was in South Africa, even more relaxed in a sense. There were limits in place for big gatherings and slowly but surely things were closing. People were aware of what was coming but they weren’t really taking it seriously.

“Spain was way more abrupt with their lockdown. On Friday evening on March 13, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced a full lockdown starting the next day and just like that from midnight everything was closed. No time for people to really stockpile or organise their lives. All bars and clubs had closed already due to large gatherings being banned.”


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With regards to schools and universities, there was some prior warning that they were going to close, rather than shutting down overnight.

“My university and many others had already shut down earlier that week and businesses had moved online due to many Italians working or studying in Spain. From the end of February we already had measures in place that said if we had been in contact with anyone from Italy we had to self-isolate and obviously any Italians returning to Spain had to do the same.

“This led to quite a tense environment as people would be reporting their Italian colleagues or classmates. We were all aware of how bad Italy was, but we never thought it would actually impact us as we were taking these ‘measures.’

“Panic only started to ensue once Madrid started closing down and we knew it would reach Catalonia. Spanish politics is extremely tense due to the Catalan-Spanish divide and this results in a divide of resources and ways of governing the areas and this is a very bad environment for uniting a country.”


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In comparison to Cape Town, he explained that the situation in Barcelona and how people were dealing with it had stark differences.

“Barcelona’s lockdown was a very different experience. Public transport is still running, there is a lot of communication across balconies and streets, as I am sure you have seen in the videos. Supermarkets were ravaged faster in Barcelona as there is usually only one small grocer per block.

“There is a strong sense of community for the support of doctors/nurses with the clapping every evening. People have made good friends with those in their block through chats across the street, dances on their balconies, games, that sort of thing. It seems that the divide between Catalan and Spain has even been forgotten momentarily.”

With regards to travel in Europe and the atmosphere among citizens, Reuvers said:

“Europe hasn’t stopped internal flights even to this day, so you can still fly from Barcelona to basically anywhere! This meant that the city emptied out very quickly as it is a large expat city. Most of my friends went home (probably 90%) and this led to people being more calm as you feel like you can escape if need be. Also the Spanish healthcare system is very good (I think one of the most efficient in Europe), so the general public feels like they are in good hands. Also the European healthcare system means any European to contract COVID-19 will be in good hands.”


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Reuvers explained the process of returning back to South Africa from Spain before all air travel was banned in the country.

“The process was very easy. I managed to book a flight for the next day and it was luckily very cheap. I could sense that SA was shutting its borders so I had to be quick. Flights were empty so it was cheap until the full lockdown of SA borders.

“People in Europe who waited until the last minute to fly home incurred huge costs in doing so but in my opinion, they only have themselves to blame. There was a good 10 day period where President Ramaphosa was imposing more and more restrictions. The shut off experienced in Dubai really wasn’t beneficial though as flights were just cancelled, leaving people stranded. Within Europe, travel was still coming from all over back to South Africa.”

With regards to the processes in place at the airports Reuvers explained that he didn’t have a bad experience getting home.

“I was allowed to get on the plane and leave very easily. There were no checks in Europe in terms of temperature and what not. However, when I landed in South Africa, if you did not have a South African passport you would have been turned around from the 18th of March, which really happened. A friend of mine has lived in South Africa her whole life, but didn’t have a passport for some reason, and she could not come home to her family.”

When he arrived back in South Africa, there were temperature checks. Reuvers also had to declare where he was travelling from, how long he had been there and if he had been in contact with anyone that had tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was a much different experience than in Europe.”

Reuvers spent two weeks in isolation, without seeing any family. He also went to get tested for COVID-19 and waited five days for his results, which were negative.

“South Africa has handled this situation a lot better than Spain. Spain was very slow to implement measures and this is evident in how the virus has spread so rapidly there. The panic here, however, seemed much worse, maybe because we saw how bad things have been overseas.

“Also, South Africa implemented a three week lockdown, whereas Spain has been extending their lockdown by two weeks at a time. This has created a lot more confusion there and I think people are now getting very worried about how long it will really last.

“Everyone is becoming very agitated. Spain has the highest percentage of doctors infected (around 16%) and this has really impacted the death rate. They were also very slow to get proper equipment.

“South Africa has been proactive in the response to combating COVID-19.”

Spain’s death toll climbed by 838 overnight from Saturday, march 28 to Sunday, March 29. The current number of confirmed cases is 87 956 and their death toll is 7 716.

Image: Gaudi Park / Unsplash

Article written by

Imogen Searra