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Coronavirus forced me home from Spain where I was a Fulbright Scholar | COMMENTARY

A man wearing a face mask walks in downtown Madrid, Spain earlier this week as the country continues to deal with the coronavirus. Spain will mobilize 200 billion euros, or the equivalent to one fifth of the country's annual output in loans, credit guarantees and subsidies for workers and vulnerable citizens.
A man wearing a face mask walks in downtown Madrid, Spain earlier this week as the country continues to deal with the coronavirus. Spain will mobilize 200 billion euros, or the equivalent to one fifth of the country's annual output in loans, credit guarantees and subsidies for workers and vulnerable citizens.(Manu Fernandez/AP)

On March 12th, I woke up in my apartment in Spain to discover the president of the United States had announced a ban of all travel between the U.S. and Europe on account of the ever-growing cases of coronavirus patients.

Though China’s cases were finally decreasing, the number of infected in Italy, Spain and Germany were on the rise. “After consulting with our top government health professionals I have decided to take several strong but necessary actions to protect the health and well-being of all Americans,” Mr. Trump said.

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I am a fellow with The Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Last September, I moved to Spain to conduct research for my creative writing project on Ana Caro, a 17th century woman writer from the Golden Age. In irony of ironies, Ms. Caro died in 1646 from the plague.

I arrived in Barcelona where I met other fellows, each pursuing innovative research in medicine, technology and archaeology. We made a WhatsApp group, which I scrolled through after the travel developments. The questions poured in, each with a rising sense of panic. Fellow researchers wondered if the impromptu ban was the signal we would be heading back.

But heading back to what?

Before getting the fellowship, I left my post as an adjunct professor at a community college where I had been fortunate to have health coverage. When I received the fellowship, along with the funding, I gained access to Spain’s healthcare system to use in the case of an emergency.

I moved to Barcelona with two suitcases that had cough drops, Tylenol and Alka Seltzer Cold tablets. I was a healthy young woman without preexisting conditions. I went to Europe for the chance to live out a much-desired dream. In doing that, I mentally blocked out my trepidations about the fact I had left my job, and thus renounced my health safety net in the U.S.

A day after the ban, a message from my commission urged all fellows in Spain to make arrangements to go home.

Back in January, I had a routine. I woke up, made coffee and turned on the morning news. The coronavirus began as a blip on everyone’s radar, a small story that received a few minutes of airtime. And then it spread. And spread. Suddenly, the news reported on a handful of Spaniards quarantined in Wuhan, waiting for the all clear to be sent home. I watched the fuzzy Skype sessions where these men smiled and gave a thumbs up.

By mid-February, our neighbor Italy had cases rising exponentially every day. Universities closed and Spanish students returned home.

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It made sense that the virus would take hold, but back at the end of February Spain was preparing for worst case scenarios with an outbreak of coronavirus. By then, our largest concentration of infected patients resided in Madrid. Stemming from the fact that Barcelona is an attractive location for tourism and commerce in Europe, I was certain our cases would spike as well. Nonetheless, I looked at the situation in my home country of the U.S. and wondered if returning home was the best choice.

Back in the U.S., things only got worse after the country refused the tests from the World Health Organization. Reports state that there is a shortage of testing kits and that the system is ill-equipped to determine the exact number of infected.

Unlike Spain, the U.S. lacks universal healthcare, which poses a challenge in getting the uninsured population the testing they require. To combat this, Congress has just passed a bill allowing for free testing of the coronavirus. While this is a step in the right direction, it is clear that many Americans, unnerved by uncertainty are taking the matters into their own hands and stockpiling guns, certain that there will be a spike in crime.

Hour by hour new developments surfaced. For us fellows, it seemed we had to return home and I questioned how such mandates “protect the health and well-being of all Americans.” Many were in the same situation as me, reluctant to get on a plane, knowing that we were making ourselves more vulnerable to getting the illness in the long lines for screenings. We had orders to self-quarantine, but no actual measures to assure we had complied.

I arrived back to the U.S. this week and am now with relatives in South Carolina where I have started my self-quarantine. I am currently without health insurance and starting to look into what options I have.

It’s with reluctance and sadness that I have returned home. If I had had the chance, I would have stayed put. At least then I would have had a safety net.

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Anita Gill (anita@anitagill.ink) is a fellow with The Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

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