Dispatch from La Nueva Normalidad, Episode 14 by John Miskelly

Cimavilla, Spain - clear and sunny day during the quarantine photo by John Miskelly

De-escalation Phase 2; the beginning of the end of the beginning of the nueva normalidad.

As I write the town’s an hour or two into its usual post-lunch Saturday dip. The humidity and heat of an unusually warm May adds an extra layer of lethargy to the sense of dozy sluggishness. It’s quiet. No one’s out. There’s also an usually thick cloud of fog enveloping the town which alters the soundscape and reduces visibility to a matter of tens of feet. It’s oppressive and slightly foreboding, appropriate maybe considering the local paper has this morning reported an outbreak of nineteen cases in a privately run care home in the center of town.

It was all going so well up until now, too. Deaths and rates of contagions had slowed to single figure trickles. Asturias graduated to phase two of Spain’s de-escalation plan with flying colors. Amongst other relaxations shops, bars, and restaurants are open, albeit with limits on customer capacity (between 40-50% depending on the region); beaches are open and the periods of the day when citizens not at either one of the age poles can go outside to exercise have been vastly expanded, taking in all hours of the day, barring those reserved for the over-70s.

Until a vaccine arrives this tightrope walk between something approaching normality and a major backslide is our collective lot.

Now, the president of the principality, Adrián Barbón, has said that the situation in the care home may well jeopardize Asturias’s scheduled progression into phase three on 8 June. This should have been expected and is something those tired-looking, put-upon health experts standing next to various world leaders have been reiterating from the start of de-escalation: there’ll be setbacks; there’ll be “rebrotes” and there’ll probably be second waves. The return to even the trappings of normal life inevitably breeds a false sense of triumph—the tantalizing whiff of a final victory still potentially a year or so away, and with that complacency. Regardless of whether Gijoneses have read the local news or not I have no doubt that the terraces will fill up again this evening with the usual lapses and absence of social distancing. But until a vaccine arrives this tightrope walk between something approaching normality and a major backslide is our collective lot.

Puerto, Spain photo by John Miskelly


For me personally these early stages of la nueva normalidad don’t seem to far off from the Before Times normality. I’ve never earned a wage that allows me to eat out regularly (with a near total collapse in work it’s now pretty much out of the question) so I haven’t been inside a restaurant to observe firsthand any adaptations owners and staff have done to comply with the new rules. Likewise any shops other than supermarkets and bakeries. The good weather we’ve enjoyed since the de-escalation began has meant any drinks out have been drunk on bars’ terraces, some of which have—legally or not—expanded, now colonizing both sidewalks of the street instead of just one, or extra tables have been obtained and put in front of empty buildings opposite their respective bars.

My ventures outside of Asturias have always been few and far between so I haven’t felt restricted by the continued ban on inter-communidad movements. During the week a friend drove the two of us to an Asturian beach previously un-surfed by myself. This marked my first trip outside of town since February, so as much as this felt novel it wasn’t—bar the revulsion we both expressed at the abandoned surgical masks dotted around the car park and dunes—related to the current situation.

I’m not one to fly the flag of any individual nation, and I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I’m in any way biased towards Spain—I’m more naturally inclined towards criticism than praise—but considering the scale of the initial outbreak, easily one of the most severe in the world, Spain’s containment and suppression of the virus has been miraculous. Due to the number of revisions, redefinitions of what is and isn’t considered a contagion, and the subsequent uncertainty around the numbers over the last month any published figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, taken at face value, the figures are extraordinary. Spain’s reproduction rate is now 0.6. Nationally the daily number is in the low hundreds. Daily deaths have remained below fifty for the last seven days.

The reasons for this relative success are obvious and demonstrable: long term investment in healthcare systems even during periods of austerity; decisive and radical (albeit sometimes late) action; clarity of message; and financial protection for businesses and individuals that made lockdown easier to stomach. I wonder though what patterns sociologists and political analysts might see when reviewing the differing fortunes between countries.

The necessary disinterest in and dehumanization of others that lubricates the gears of consumer capitalism—those are the places where things have become most unglued.

My broad-brush bias leans towards the varying levels of social capital (that sense of “togetherness” and “community”) in different nation states. To call countries such as Spain, France, Greece, and the famously egalitarian Scandinavian states socialist utopians would be absurd. But there does seem to be a pattern whereby countries that have retained a sense of a wider, abstract civic duty—Uncle Bernie’s “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” ethic—have fared better in the face of this virus. On the flipside we’ve seen how the opposite has happened in societies that don’t recognize, or have been discouraged to recognize, the reality of the existence of any “society” at all. The resentment, the relentless competition, the paranoia, the distrust, the individualism, the alienation and the necessary disinterest in and dehumanization of others that lubricates the gears of consumer capitalism—those are the places where things have become most unglued.

Military capacity is irrelevant. You can’t drone strike a virus. You can’t deport it back to its “shithole” country.

Likewise; types of leader. We’ve seen what dick-swinging hyper-masculinity gets you in the face of an international disaster where central planning and stable public services have proved paramount; it gets you nowhere. Military capacity is irrelevant. You can’t drone strike a virus. You can’t deport it back to its “shithole” country. Chest thumping, nationalist demagoguery and being the most obnoxiously callous to win-over the most willingly ignorant doesn’t translate into anything materially helpful. Witness the shambolic, slow motion collapse spooling out in the U.S., Brazil, Russia and the U.K. The likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, and Johnson don’t look strong and effective, they look impotent; they look, ironically, dickless.

I’ll leave it there as I know many of you have more pressing concerns in your immediate communities. Hopefully this might have served as something of a brief bit of mental R’n’R from fighting the good fight. Strangers all over the world admire your resilience and bravery and are rooting for you from afar: As always, more than ever, ¡SOLIDARIDAD PARA SIEMPRE! ¡NO PUEDO RESPIRIAR! ¡LAS VIDAS NEGRAS IMPORTAN!

Please consider donating to one or more of the following groups: Reclaim The Block, The Minnesota Freedom Fund or The North Star Health Collective

John Miskelly lives in Gijón/Xixón, Asturias, Spain. He is 34 years old.