(c) Koen Greven
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At the end of January it was still a message that seemed strange to most Madrileños. In Chinatown, located in the Usera district in Madrid, there was a real run on face masks. They were mainly residents of Chinese origin who bought them en masse. They were told to buy them as a precaution after the outbreak of some kind of virus in Wuhan. And within a few days the limited numbers of face masks in the Spanish capital were completely sold out and were all in the hands of the Chinese. In Spain, until recently, these were not among the products people would usually buy. Why should they?

Tens of thousands of spectators without face masks

During the first month of the year, very few of the six million Madrileños were very concerned about this virus. Both the pharmaceutical industry and consumers just took note of the story about the mask-hoarding Chinese and their virus. The Madrileños lived under the assumption that nothing would happen that fast. While the virus, now renamed COVID-19, was spreading around the world at a rapid pace, the soccer teams Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid played their home games in front of tens of thousands of spectators without face masks, with the exception of one Asian. Even that was looked upon with some bemusement.

An inexhaustible supply of toilet paper

Soon after, the roles were suddenly reversed. When the Spanish government and scientists finally realized in mid-March that it wasn’t just a simple flu, a huge demand for face masks suddenly surged throughout Madrid. Initially this was for the medical staff who saw the dozens of hospitals flooded with corona patients overnight. Regular citizens then became even more preoccupied with a potential shortage of toilet paper. But no matter how many rolls they bought, that supply proved to be simply inexhaustible. After a few days, everyone realized that this kind of hoarding was useless.

(c) Koen Greven

However, the shelves for face masks remained empty. Every pharmacist in town had to say “no” for weeks when requests were made for protective equipment – antiseptic gel and plastic gloves were also sold out. It was only on the black market that face masks were being sold at exorbitant prices. While the authorities announced on Spanish television that they had ordered supplies from China for hundreds of millions of euros, many nurses in hospitals were still left empty-handed. Sometimes they literally went to battle against a life-threatening virus with cut-out plastic rubbish bags and homemade masks. Since then, dozens of healthcare workers have had to pay for this with their lives.

Substandard masks

As the confirmed infections and deaths continued to rise, the call for face masks in Madrid grew louder and louder. In April the long awaited shipments finally arrived from China. It soon became apparent that the quality of hundreds of thousands of face masks was so substandard that it was actually irresponsible for healthcare personnel to use them. But for lack of alternatives, they were nonetheless in high demand. Pharmacists were finally able to sell something to concerned citizens. And so in the second week of April, for the first time in my life, I bought a face mask. The “substandard” mask cost me €3.

(c) Koen Greven

Three months after the run on the face masks in the Usera district, the city of Madrid finally seems to be getting a grip on the virus and the required personal protective equipment. As of last week, in the Madrid subway – which hardly anyone really wants to take now – passengers even get a free face mask when they step through the gates. The kind that prevents you from infecting others, but doesn’t protect you from carriers of the virus.

I had previously paid €3 for one, which I’ll keep as a souvenir. Shortly afterwards, I managed to buy three more of the more professional “3M” type for €35.70. That seemed like a monumental purchase. By last Saturday, four planes had arrived in Madrid from China with material with which, according to reports, millions of “adequate” face masks can be made. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a fixed price for the masks immediately after the announcement of a new alarm phase. So, despite my overpriced face masks, its seems that I’m still struggling to keep up.

Read Koen Greven’s earlier columns here.