Together From Afar – Translation
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before we started today’s episode —the last one of the season— I wanted to tell you something. Like many of you, the Radio Ambulante team is spending the quarantine in our respective homes. We’re more than fifteen journalists, editors, producers, sound designers, and entrepreneurs in almost ten countries. The quarantine has been different for each of us, with different challenges, but it hasn’t been easy for anyone. What you’re experiencing —the anxiety, the fear, the boredom, the desperation— well, we’re feeling that too.
What has filled us with energy and motivation these days is telling stories and knowing that you, the Radio Ambulante listeners, are on the other end. You’ve been with us this whole season, commenting on, discussing, promoting, and sharing our episodes. And we appreciate it.
Remember that part of the team will continue releasing episodes every Friday, covering current issues with our recently released news podcast, El Hilo. We don’t do the exact same thing as Radio Ambulante, but I still feel that in a moment like this, trying to understand and explain the news in the region is very valuable.
I want to invite you to join our new membership program. Your support is key for us to return in September with a new season, Radio Ambulante’s tenth season, and for it to be the best we’ve ever done, the most ambitious. Become a member at radioambulante.org/donate.
For now, stay home and enjoy the last episode.
Ok, so, to close the season, we called an old friend of Radio Ambulante…
[Gabriela Wiener]: Hey, guys.
[Camila Segura]: Hello.
[Gabriela]: Can you hear me alright?
[Daniel]: We can hear you. We can hear you.
[Daniel]: Gabriela Wiener. If you’ve been listening to us for a while, you probably already know her. She’s from Peru. She’s a writer. She lives in Madrid. Camila Segura, the editorial director of Radio Ambulante, and I spoke with her in the last week of March. A terrible month for her.
[Gabriela]: How are you doing, lovelies?
[Camila]: How are you? Ugh.
[Gabriela]: Rotten, rotten.
[Daniel]: “Rotten,” Gaby says. I bet you can guess why. The day we spoke, March 27th, in Spain there were already 64,000 cases, almost 5,000 deaths, and an overcome hospital system.
[Presenter]: That European country surpassed China in the number of deaths. Madrid and Catalonia are the most affected regions.
[Journalist]: With hospitals completely overwhelmed, public health experts hold out hope that the peak will arrive in the coming days.
[Daniel]: OK, one detail about Gaby’s life that you should know in order to understand this story is that she lives in a throuple. Her husband Jaime is Peruvian, and they’ve been married for over 15 years. Six years ago, both of them, Jaime and Gaby, got together with Rosi, who’s Spanish. The three of them live in a large old house with their child Coco and their son Amaru in a working-class neighborhood in Madrid.
But before talking about what that terrible March was like, we have to go back in time a little. Not so far back, honestly, because one of the things that characterizes this pandemic is how quickly everything happened. Doesn’t it feel that way to you? In the blink of an eye, the world changed. Doctors and specialists probably see it differently, but for a lot of us, well, it was lightning fast.
So let’s go back to late February…
[Gabriela]: Around February, it was like… people in journalism and people on Twitter, etc., we all thought we were super smart and distancing ourselves, right?, from the, let’s say, the panic that was building in some places, you know?
[Daniel]: The virus was already killing people in Italy, but a lot of people were minimizing what could happen…
[Gabriela]: I clearly remember some Spanish correspondent, who besides… who, well, was, like, super celebrated, you know?, because he was broadcasting from Milan saying that this was like the common cold.
[Journalist]: We can’t talk about, I don’t know, about a terrifying virus such as Ebola. No. We’re talking about a kind of flu that the majority of people who get it recover from.
[Gabriela]: And the truth was that if… if we kept stirring up panic, it was going to be worse, right?
[Daniel]: So you understand: on February 26th there were fewer than 20 confirmed cases at the national level. The director of the center for health emergencies insisted that…
[Fernando Simón]: Right now, there is no information indicating that we have to suspend any events. Right now, we’re not in that situation.
[Daniel]: And the Spanish press said more or less the same thing.
[Journalist]: People who are not showing symptoms, even if they’ve traveled to high-risk areas, can have a completely normal life. They don’t need to take any special measures, just be vigilant.
[Gabriela]: I was in that skeptical phase, right?, that phase of staying calm, of “in the end, this kills less than so many things.”
[Daniel]: Jaime was too.
[Jaime]: Even though it’s hard, I have to admit that I was one of the people who thought —when it was just starting in… in Italy— I thought that, in effect, the statistics were saying that the flu killed a lot more people than the coronavirus was killing and this would probably blow over.
[Daniel]: I think a lot of us, one way or another, leaned into the belief that this would pass.
But while a lot of people were convincing themselves that the panic was the real enemy, the virus was already spreading throughout Spain. Gaby remembers speaking with an editor friend around that time to talk about payment or something like that, and when the guy mentioned the coronavirus and that he was worried about it, Gaby thought it was an exaggeration.
[Gabriela]: We were just a week or a little more away from the quarantine, and we were still absolutely thinking: “Oh, what… what is this guy talking about? I mean, calm down, right?”
[Daniel]: By that time, it was almost March 8th, International Women’s Day, a very important date for Gaby and her family. Gaby, Rosi, Coco, and Amaru went to the march. And it ended up being, as usual, a massive event.
[Women]: They call it equality and it isn’t! They call it equality and it isn’t!
[Gabriela]: The thing is that: on March 8th or in those days, here in Spain and here in Madrid we were living a completely normal life.
[Daniel]: Cafes and restaurants were full. Night clubs and soccer stadiums, churches, in short, what we already know.
But that was all about to change.
[Gabriela]: On Sunday we went to the march. On Monday, Tuesday… on Tuesday they announced that they may be closing schools and on Wednesday they weren’t going.
[Jaime]: The measures the Spanish government took made us all realize how… how serious the situation was.
[Daniel]: A country doesn’t just close all of its schools like that.
[Gabriela]: Because really such an extreme measure as closing the schools, you know?, it makes you think that this has to be a very big deal, right? Totally.
[Jaime]: Evidently, like any more or less rational person, as I was becoming aware of the gravity of the situation and the fact that it wasn’t like the flu and… and the spread of the virus was exponential and very fast, my opinion changed and… and we went into a complete state of alert.
[Daniel]: The quarantine in Madrid was announced on March 14th.
[Jaime]: By that time, I was already starting to show the early symptoms.
[Daniel]: He started feeling bad around March 10th. Not sick exactly, rather he just felt bad in general. His whole body was sore.
[Gabriela]: He had a cough, well, like normal for a cold, and he had body aches like you can have with a cold.
[Daniel]: But three days later, he got a fever…
[Jaime]: It’s one of the clearest symptoms of the coronavirus, a slight fever. In my case, it was between 37.5 and 38.5 degrees Celsius [99.5 and 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit].
[Daniel]: Right then, without knowing if it was the coronavirus or not, they decided to isolate him within the house.
[Jaime]: I started keeping one meter of distance between me and my… my family. And I stayed separated in… on one side of the house in a bedroom to avoid transmitting it, in the event it was coronavirus.
[Daniel]: They started renting the house they live in now not long ago. Really, it’s like two spaces divided by a patio. On one side, there’s a large area, a kind of loft where the three adults sleep and work. On the other, there are the kids’ rooms, a living room, the kitchen, and the bathroom.
Jaime isolated himself in the loft area. After three days, Coco, who is 13 years old, started having a fever and also isolated themself.
The plan was to wait and see how things went because the message from authorities and the media was clear:
[Gabriela]: If you’re young, it’s going to look like you have a pretty bad cold, right? And if you don’t have respiratory problems, that is, if you’re not suffocating, then rest at home. Treat the symptoms you have, and that’s it. Only call an ambulance, only call the hospital, only go to… to the emergency room if you aren’t getting air.
[Rosi]: The thing is we were hearing Jaime coughing more and more and progressively seeing him get worse.
[Daniel]: Just in case, that’s Rosi.
[Rosi]: And he was spending much more time laying in bed. He couldn’t move, until one day he spent… he spent the whole day sleeping, right? And at the same time, all fucking day we were listening to the radio seeing, like shit, this is real. And every day it’s getting crazier.
[Daniel]: This is important, I think. That overwhelming feeling they all felt. That every day something would happen that seemed unthinkable the day before. The feeling of having awoken in an unreal world. Madrid, like every city in Spain, like so many in Europe, was closing its doors. Public life came to a halt. There was news of sick people: people who were closer and closer to you. You heard the news about hospitals on the verge of collapse. You heard sirens day and night. And at home, a makeshift quarantine for Jaime, who, amid all of this, kept getting worse.
[Jaime]: So on the seventh day of… of having symptoms, I couldn’t even talk normally because my cough was… it wasn’t… it wasn’t letting me speak.
[Daniel]: He ran out of breath when he spoke. So they decided it was time for someone to see him. Jaime went to the neighborhood’s medical center, so they could measure his blood oxygen levels.
[Jaime]: And they saw that I was at 90%, which is very, very low for a person my age. And then they said they could call me an ambulance right then, or I could go home and wait 24 hours.
[Daniel]: And despite how bad he felt, he decided to wait. His reasoning was clear:
[Jaime]: It was always, “No, there are people who need it more.”
[Daniel]: He didn’t want to contribute to the collapse of the hospital system.
[Jaime]: And this kind of —quote— “responsible” thinking, was also a kind of denial of my own symptoms, right? I decided not to accept the ambulance at that time and go home. And I was walking the five blocks from the medical center to my house when I realized that something was really wrong.
[Daniel]: It took him twice as long to get home and he was out of breath. Gaby and Rosi saw that he was in such bad shape that they decided to call an ambulance right away.
It took five hours to get there.
[Jaime]: In those five hours, I was knocked flat. I couldn’t move very much and I started to feel really worried.
[Gabriela]: This ambulance arrived, which was like something from another planet.
[Daniel]: That is, the ambulance was the same…
[Gabriela]: But some guys got out completely covered, protected by… by… by… by space suits, you know? With helmets, gloves, you know? They were so protected, I mean, seeing that scares you, you know? I mean, those people… those people took my… my husband away.
[Daniel]: They took him to the emergency room at the 12 de Octubre Hospital.
[Gabriela]: One of those hospitals that was already on the news because they had patients on the floor.
[Daniel]: He was in an area that was only for coronavirus patients.
[Gabriela]: And that’s when the Via Crucis began, you know? In a hospital chair in a completely packed waiting room, coughing, without beds, and the healthcare workers could barely see to any of them, you know?
[Jaime]: And the most terrible part was seeing how the ambulances didn’t stop coming. They came at a rate of… of one every half hour. They would come, drop off a patient, and go out again.
[Daniel]: He would be in that waiting room for more than a day. Thirty-two hours.
[Jaime]: From the moment I got there I was counting each hour that passed.
[Daniel]: But it’s not like he was completely abandoned. In other words, despite how crowded the waiting room was, they did bring him in to take a coronavirus test and listen to his lungs. When they gave him the results, he called Gaby and Rosi.
[Gabriela]: So, imagine Rosi and me here. Jaime calling us to… hours past midnight at this point, without a bed, suffering horrible pain and telling us, “Don’t be afraid, but I have pneumonia in both lungs,” right?
[Jaime]: For me, it was hard because as the hours went by, I could tell that they… they were getting more and more worried. And it was very hard to watch the hours go by. Counting the hours. That it was 10 hours, 12 hours, 15 hours, 20 hours and we were still sitting there.
[Daniel]: Jaime, Gaby, and Rosi texted or spoke when they could.
[Jaime]: It was a little difficult because of the… the electrical outlets to charge the phones. Clearly, we were all trying to… to charge them at the same time. We would run out of battery and charge a little.
[Daniel]: And then let someone else, who was in more or less the same situation, use the outlet.
[Jaime]: It wasn’t really a point of… of contention, or a… or a struggle. It was more a kind of solidarity, you know? It was like: “I’m going to charge a little and then you can.” And no one had their phone plugged in the whole time, rather it was… we were rotating spontaneously, almost without saying anything, right?
[Daniel]: I like this part of Jaime’s story, and it’s not hard for me to imagine. A simple gesture of solidarity that one patient after another repeats because, yes, they are all in this together. And the coronavirus, as we know, is so contagious that family members can’t accompany people who have the illness. So, everyone in the waiting room was anxious, suffering, and alone.
Coco didn’t develop symptoms as severe as their dad’s, so they didn’t have to go to the hospital. They just stayed in isolation. But Gaby and Rosi were waiting on news from Jaime, desperate, not able to sleep.
[Gabriela]: What we experienced was real fear. First not knowing the extent of the damage to his lungs. Thinking that he was going to suffocate, and thinking that we weren’t going to be there, right? That they weren’t going to… to… to be able to help him, right?, because they were collapsing, right?
[Daniel]: But, amid that despair and uncertainty, Gaby and Rosi had to keep going.
[Gabriela]: Having to keep the house going, keeping everyone at home in a good mood, right? Besides, Coco was asking about their dad a lot and we were telling them he was fine, but we were devastated. Plus we had to keep cleaning like there was no tomorrow.
[Daniel]: And Jaime kept in touch with his family, telling them how it was going. In the emergency room, things were only getting worse.
[Jaime]: By the second day I was waiting there, there were already people in the hallways. There were a lot of people on the ground or sitting or passed out in chairs.
[Daniel]: A lot of the people in the waiting rooms were older people. And like everyone, they were alone.
[Jaime]: And I was astonished by their strength sitting up in that chair. I, who am 46 years old, felt like my body was falling apart and sometimes anxiety got… got… got the better of me. I felt like I wasn’t reasoning well anymore more or less by the time we were there for 20 hours. And between… between the illness and… and the anxiety, and physical exhaustion, all of that was driving me crazy. But I saw these women, so… stoic, so strong, so brave, bearing it without asking anyone for anything. And it was like… like… very powerful for me.
[Daniel]: Despite how sick he was, at one point, Jaime made a decision. If they called him while there were older people waiting…
[Jaime]: I wouldn’t take the… the room. I was going to stand up and tell the doctors: “I’m not going to a room. Please, take the person next to me,” etc.
In that sense, I think I was trying to deny… to deny to myself that I was a person in need of care, because my thinking was: “They need it more. They need it more.”
[Daniel]: There was an older woman who was there for almost as long as he was…
[Jaime]: So, my final thought when I was already on my last legs, and I couldn’t take it anymore was: “If this woman doesn’t go, I’m not going,” right? Lucky for me, and somewhat relieving my feeling of guilt, at some point when I was nodding off, I open my eyes and that woman wasn’t there anymore, right?
[Daniel]: And so when they came to call him, at the 32nd hour…
[Jaime]: I don’t refuse the bed. I sink into the wheelchair, and they take me away. But everything… none of this happens without a brutal sense of guilt. I couldn’t even look back because I felt like there were still older people who had come after me. But… but, you know, that they deserved the bed more than me. They had to be priorities. That kind of thinking really tortured me as… as I went upstairs.
[Daniel]: By the time Jaime finally went up to his room, remember they had already given him a coronavirus test the day before. Once he was set up in the room, they gave him the results…
[Gabriela]: And it was negative. And then what they told us and what they told him was that there are a lot of false negatives.
[Daniel]: False negatives occur for several reasons: a lot of the time the sample is bad or it’s taken too early, and sometimes, the kits themselves are defective. Spain bought quick tests which ended up being a fiasco. They only had a 30% chance of giving an accurate result.
But Jaime’s symptoms were so clear they told him they were going to treat him as if he was positive. They put him in a room with José Antonio, a 53-year-old man who was also a false negative. There they kept each other company.
[Jaime]: Well, in those days you share together… you start to get to know each other and tell each other about your lives. What we did was watch the news non-stop, you know?
[Journalist 1]: Spain reaches one week of confinement and the rates of coronavirus continue to rise.
[Journalist 2]: Spain begins the worst days of this crisis with the number of deaths doubling every day.
[Journalist 3]: In Madrid, the most heavily affected region, hospitals are overwhelmed with ICUs running at double their capacity.
[Jaime]: We saw that they were talking about the collapse of the hospitals, they were talking about our own experience of suffering and… and it was a strange feeling. And I’m not going to say it was comforting, but, yes… yes, at least you felt like the media and everyone was paying attention to what was happening to you, right?
[Daniel]: A group of doctors and nurses were moving non-stop, treating one person after another. It was clear that they were working in a precarious state.
[Jaime]: Sometimes nurses would come in —to come in they have to wear a… a special suit— and sometimes they didn’t have those special suits and they had to put on plastic trash bags to come in. All of this was very painful to see. Sometimes they would break down and tell us that the first time they had to put on a trash bag they cried because they realized how scarce materials were.
[Daniel]: And sometimes when Jaime and José Antonio were watching the news, the nurses would tell them:
[Jaime]: “Don’t watch so much of that because you’ll get depressed. You need to… to keep your spirits up because if you don’t you won’t recover and all of our work will be for nothing. It’ll be no use.” And so they tried to keep our spirits up. They told us… they told us jokes. Anyway, they’re… it’s a noble and selfless job that… that all the healthcare workers did there.
[Daniel]: In total, Jaime spent four days in the hospital. And the truth is he was lucky. They never had to send him to intensive care, much less intubate him. The day after arriving in the hospital, they gave him another test and this one was positive. Still, he responded well to the treatment they gave him, but it’s not like he was cured.
When they released him, he still had symptoms and some after-effects. Under normal circumstances, they would have had him stay in the hospital until he fully recovered. But given the emergency they were going through in Madrid in those days, they needed the bed for another patient.
And so, on March 24th, he went home, where the second part of his challenge would come.
[Gabriela]: So when Jaime came here, he was a full-fledged positive case, you know?, which made us very nervous. Because it’s one thing to have someone you suspect is sick in your house, because they have all the symptoms, it’s another thing for someone to come who’s confirmed positive, right? And that was when… well, there are still two weeks left in the quarantine and that was when we split the house in two.
[Daniel]: In a certain sense, they had already done that before but in a somewhat improvised way, using basic common sense.
[Gabriela]: But when Jaime came home… that moment was the real moment of truth, because we had, let’s say, seen a wolf poke out its ears. We had felt its breath on our necks. Coronavirus almost had its claws on us. So all of a sudden we got very organized.
[Daniel]: They were much more rigorous. When we spoke with them, Jaime had been home for three days, and they already had their routine.
They cleaned all day and wouldn’t even set foot on that other side of the house, not even to bring them food, which, for lack of a better system, they would leave on the floor three times a day. And at night…
[Gabriela]: At night, we gather up all with gloves and masks, and bam!, in the dishwasher.
[Jaime]: Sometimes we open the door so we can be… have the feeling of being together, but we have masks on and we’re a few meters apart.
[Daniel]: We should clarify that this house only has one bathroom.
[Gabriela]: So the only common area for the infected and the healthy is the bathroom.
[Daniel]: And for that reason, they had to impose a very strict protocol to prevent transmission.
[Gabriela]: Jaime and Coco are in charge of… of cleaning that area, right? So they have… so we can go in, they have to be very, very responsible. So there’s a soap spray and another bath spray. And there are cleaning wipes, you know? And everything they touch, you know?, the toilet handle, the faucet, in… in the sink, the doorknob.
[Daniel]: Jaime and Coco have their own toilet paper, their own toothpaste, their own towels. All separate.
But they’ve worked it out, and aside from the small issue of sharing a bathroom, the truth is Rosi and Gaby feel very privileged.
[Gabriela]: Really we’ve come to understand that we’re renting this house —we haven’t been here very long— because it was the…
[Gabriela and Rosi]: The coronavirus house (laughter).
[Gabriela]: It’s the perfect house for coronavirus.
[Daniel]: When we spoke, they were sitting in the kitchen, in what they call “the border zone.” In the camera, you could see a door behind them.
[Gabriela]: Behind that door is… is the area for the… the lepers (laughs). The valley of the lepers is behind that door. We decided that the people with coronavirus wouldn’t go into the kitchen anymore. The covids don’t go into the kitchen. The covids just stay in their area and we give them supplies, we give them what they need.
[Daniel]: Since Jaime returned, there have been two groups in the house.
[Gabriela]: The covids v. the pandis. The covids are the people who have coronavirus and the others, who could be covids or not, are the undiagnosed asymptomatic carriers.
[Daniel]: Undiagnosed asymptomatic carriers. Pandis.
[Gabriela]: Rosi and I could be pandis. That’s why we don’t go out.
[Daniel]: And that’s why every cough, every sneeze, is a stressor.
[Gabriela]: Any low fever is a cause for absolute suspicion, and then we start looking at each other like, “That’s a cough. That… did you cough? Is… is that a sneeze?” (nervous laughter). I mean, we all look at each other like that all the time. We’re under suspicion, in a state of alarm, you know?
I don’t know, everything is scary.
[Daniel]: But, well, they still have to keep on living.
[Gabriela]: First, I’m drinking a beer that Rosi just left here, that she drank out of (laughs). This is completely inappropriate. It’s not… it’s not recommended by the WHO.
[Daniel]: I want to put in a parenthesis here. I feel like I have to explain why there’s so much laughter. Camila and I laughed a lot with Gaby and Rosi on that call, while they were telling us about perhaps the most traumatic experience in their lives. But it was late in Madrid, past midnight, and Gaby and Rosi both looked exhausted. You could see the constant stress of living in paranoia on their faces.
But they were laughing out loud. About how absurd it all was, how painful. About the fear that had already started to subside but had left its scars, of course.
It was cathartic for them. And for us —for me and Camila, that is— for us it was like hearing a message from the future. When we spoke, the situation I was seeing in New York looked more and more like what they were describing in Madrid. The empty streets. The uncertainty. The ambulance sirens running constantly. And Camila was in Bogotá, where she had been in self-quarantine for two weeks.
I don’t know if you can hear the anxiety in our voices, but maybe from our laughter, you can tell that we’re letting loose. For them, it was a push and pull between the paranoia they needed to take care of their family and exhaustion, and their intense longing to go back to normal.
[Gabriela]: We know that everything we do, including grabbing a bottle, could be the difference between, for example, moving forward with the ten days we have left to go back to being a family or starting the cycle all over again if one of us gets sick.
[Daniel]: Have you cried a lot?
[Gabriela]: Oof, I’ve cried everywhere. I’ve cried in the shower. Especially cleaning, I’ve cried a lot while cleaning.
[Daniel]: I think that the sheer fact of having cried so much made it hard for Gaby and Rosi to laugh that way that night.
[Gabriela]: We have a window with bars that looks out on the patio. I knock on the window, you know?, I step back and I tend not to… Jaime and I have a conversation as if he was a… a prisoner, let’s say…
Also, Coco and I touch through that door. Since it… since it’s kind of translucent, we put our hands together and do things like that.
[Jaime]: It’s been a month since I hugged my youngest son, well, that’s very hard, honestly. Even with… with Coco who’s on this side of the house with me. we’re afraid of having direct contact, of hugging or kissing because we’ve read about and seen things about relapse. And that is very, very difficult. We still prefer to keep that… that distance.
[Daniel]: Two weeks after our conversation, Gaby published a post on her social media announcing that they had beaten the coronavirus. It was three photos of the whole family, all hugging and smiling. Together.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me, with production by Luis Fernando Vargas and Victoria Estrada. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the team includes Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO. This is our last episode of the season, but I want to remind you we have another podcast: a news podcast that airs every Friday. It’s called El Hilo. Check it out at elhilo.audio.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thank you for listening and supporting us all season. See you in September.