Comparing Dr. Bonnie Henry’s new restrictions to those in a collectivist culture
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
“Face masks are mandatory everywhere 24/7. Spain is the only country in Europe which has mandatory facemask for everything, everywhere. Every time you leave your house, facemask on—no exceptions.”
I was living in Spain when COVID-19 first hit. I watched it travel across the globe, linger in Italy, then take over the country I was residing in. In mere days, many of our liberties were taken; the strange key to holding onto one of our freedoms, however, was owning a dog.
In November, British Columbia’s health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry unveiled new COVID orders for the province. She asked that we do not welcome anyone inside our homes other than those who lived there. Henry did note that people living alone are allowed to have one or two people within their “bubble” in their homes. (And some instances like allowing your child home from university are not considered “social gatherings” so those are OK too.) And, while she noted that British Columbians were still allowed to go for a walk or bike ride outdoors, Dr. Bonnie suspended all events that did not relate to baptisms, funerals, and weddings—including those which had previously been okayed, such as the VanDusen Festival of Lights.
Some found these new mandates confusing and contradictory. Henry had noted how moving into winter, the virus spreads easier since many activities have moved indoors. Yet, while yoga studios, spin classes, and other group activities are suspended, indoor dance classes and gyms remain open. How is it that these places remain open, while all in-person religious gatherings have been suspended? Not to mention that breweries, bars, and restaurants—places where one’s mask is off for nearly the entirety of their visit—have remained open, while arts venues have been ordered to close. Dr. Bonnie Henry has noted that she wants British Columbians to remain mentally and physically healthy during these times, but do these new orders abide by her words? Have other countries experienced such contradictions?
Both the Spanish army and police blocked all roads leading into and out of these towns; going against this new order was impossible.
Earlier this year, I had an apartment in Vic, Spain—a politically righteous city, located in the same region as Barcelona: Catalonia. Mandates for this area of Spain were different than other parts as this region has been fighting for independence from the rest of the country. On March 12, four municipalities in the region were ordered to confine themselves to their cities for 15 days. This decree was absolute: no one was to enter nor exit these areas for two weeks. Both the Spanish army and police blocked all roads leading into and out of these towns; going against this new order was impossible.
The next day, university students in Vic still attended classes. However, we were told—mid-day—that we too were to be locked down for two weeks as per Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s orders. Despite Spain then being the second-highest infected country in Europe, many students—myself included—thought that this two-week break was simply that: two weeks off of school. The following day, bars and restaurants began hosting at a third of their capacity, and beyond this I did not expect much to change. That day I was playing ping-pong at an outdoor court when a Spanish parks and recreation worker drove up with a roll of caution tape. He told me and my friends that he was told to quarantine all parks, and that we must promptly leave. We complied as he wrapped the green space in caution tape. He did the same to each of the benches. I was unaware that this event was just the beginning of the extremist restrictions that were to come; in that moment I found it comical, and over-exaggerated—film worthy if you will. I later learnt that all parks and gardens would be closed to the public for months to come.
As the weekend ended, nearly all happenings and services in Vic had shut down, with the exception of grocery shops, hospitals, and some pharmacies. As the new week began, I also learnt that only one person per household was allowed to leave home at a time. My partner and I were walking to the supermarket when the police stopped us. They asked us why we were out of the home together, asked us where we lived, and reminded us that leisure walks and outdoor exercise were not allowed. The police also informed us that no more than a single person was allowed to leave home at a time, as well the regulation that the essential service which we were traversing to must be the closest one to our home.
Succeeding grocery trips consisted of us walking on either side of the street, acting like strangers to one another until we reached the supermarket. These new restrictions were enforced by the new bombardment of police and military who patrolled the town. In time, these authority figures got to know which part of town each of the residents lived in. During one of our grocery runs, I watched a policeman stop a man to ask him why he was so far from his house. The policeman told him that he should instead be buying groceries at the shop closest to where he lives.
Leaving one’s house had to be justified by going to either the supermarket, pharmacy, hospital, or taking out the trash. Dog owners, however, were granted one more freedom than the rest of us: dog walks. Never had I wanted to own a dog so bad, nor had I ever been so pleased to simply take out the garbage. I never did get a dog, and perhaps that is a good thing; according to a study by the Environmental Research Journal, Spain-residing dog owners were found to increase their chances of contracting COVID by 78 percent. These restrictions transformed Vic: once a medieval town alive with social events, religious festivals, and street markets, Vic was quickly turned into an authority-administered ghost town. The gothic aesthetic of Vic added perfectly to the emptiness. Oddly enough, despite the region’s extremist response to COVID, and Vic’s compliance, the city currently has the highest amount of active cases in all of Catalonia.
Springtime was a while ago, so how have the restrictions in Catalonia evolved? While their lockdown measures have lessened, those residing in this region are subject to daily and weekly curfews. In an online interview with the Other Press, Barcelona resident Paula Silvia Zeppa Sanchez explains, “from Monday to Thursday we can’t leave Catalonia, and from Friday 6 am to Monday 6 am we can’t leave the city we are living in. Apart from that we have a curfew from 10 pm to 6 am.” On the bright side, many of the services that were previously closed—such as bars, restaurants, non-essential shops, and public spaces like beaches and parks—are now open.
“We are able to go to parks and the beach, but we have recommendations for what to do—like avoiding crowded places. So, if it’s quite full, it is better to avoid it. At the beach we have […] to leave two meters between towels […] we can only take the mask off when we are taking in the sun or in the sea,” said Zeppa Sanchez. She elaborates on the facemask mandate in saying that “face masks are mandatory everywhere 24/7. Spain is the only country in Europe which has mandatory facemask for everything, everywhere. Every time you leave your house, facemask on—no exceptions.”
The new bar and restaurant mandates in Spain are similar to those which we are currently experiencing in Vancouver. When asked about these gastronomical spots, Zeppa Sanchez tells the Other Press: “They are open, but they are not operating as usual. Bars and restaurants are not in full capacity […] [instead they are at] 30 percent and no more than four to six people at one table.” She tells us that their hours of operation have also changed. “Normally bars and restaurants close at midnight, but now they close at ten and people can get there at maximum by nine.”
The current Catalonia mandates seem to be similar to what we are facing in British Columbia during this time, but our numbers, however, vary a bit from theirs. On December 5, British Columbia reported 6,352 active cases whereas Catalonia reported 8,745 on December 4. While the two provinces’ populations are similar—with BC having 5,071 million inhabitants, and Catalan having only two and a half million more at 7,566—the area of British Columbia trumps that of Catalan: 944,735 km2 versus 32,108 km2. While this area is not proportionately shared between British Columbians as most of us are clustered into towns and cities, Catalonians not only have more active cases, but one could argue that their social culture seems to invite the spreading of the virus. In no way am I condemning them—this component of Spanish life is one thing that initially enticed me to study there. It is understandable that a culture that is highly social—both with everyday happenings but also with large-scale celebrations—would cause the virus to spread at a faster rate. What is more effective in curbing the spread of the virus though, propagating it, or an entire culture’s collective intention to prevent it?
Catalan culture differs from individualist Canadian culture in that much time is spent with others. Siestas are real; the average person gets a multi-hour lunch break which is often spent sharing food and wine with friends and family. In the month leading up to the initial outbreak, carnivals occurred throughout the region. The week long sitges carnival, multi-day La Mercé festival, Festes de Santa Eulàlia,Sant Medir, the Women’s Day march, and numerous large-scale film festivals all took place in the weeks prior to the initial lockdown. Not to mention it was football (soccer) season. Mass crowds not only gathered in Camp Nou—a stadium with double the capacity of BC Place—but prior to (and following) each game, blocks surrounding the stadium were engulfed in football fans. These sorts of large-scale events seldom happen within British Columbia, not to mention that our society is much more individualistic, which one might think would decrease the spread of the virus in terms of person-to-person contraction.
One can say that our restrictions being almost synonymous with those in an area affected much worse—and whose social culture differs so greatly from ours—is uncalled for. The virus has been shown to “spread from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets and aerosols created when an infected person coughs, sneezes, sings, shouts, or talks.” Due to this transmission mode, it would make sense that the virus would spread quicker in collectivist cultures. It has been found, however, that the mindsets pertaining to these sorts of cultures have aided in engaging in practices meant to curb the spread this virus, since collectivism “places more emphasis on in-group vigilance […] and may contribute to people’s intention to prevent COVID-19.”
Western countries are often labelled as individualist cultures, whereas Eastern countries are commonly classified as collectivist; Spain—despite being located in the West, is an outlier to these labels. The definitions of these terms are not limited to describing how individuals spend their time socially—they also cover how a population perceives and cares for others. The East (especially Asian countries) have seemed to beat COVID at a higher rate; what does that mean for us Westerners? Are our restrictions as absurd as they seem—contradictions aside? Will our individualistic mindsets betray us?
No one knows what the future holds, but one thing that we do know is that we want things to return how they were previously. This quote by Sanchez describes the drastic change in her country, and this feeling also resonates in Canada: “In Spain we greet each other with kisses, that has changed—no one gives kisses now, we just do the elbow touch or nothing.”