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‘No one thought that it was here': One missionary’s experience with COVID-19 in Spain
August 2020

Brooke Nagel serves with SEND through youth ministry in Madrid. Spain was one of the first countries to experience a large COVID-19 outbreak, and many members of our team there got the virus. Brooke shares about how COVID-19 has affected her health, life, ministry, and relationship with God.   

On what it was like to have COVID-19 

When I was sick, I did not know it was COVID. The news was saying there were only a few cases in Spain and they were all being contained in isolation at the hospital. No one thought that it was here. 

It was the end of February and we had a SEND Spain women’s retreat at a hotel about an hour from my home in Madrid. Waking up, I knew that something was off with my body. I have had a lot of health issues since I was young. However, two years ago I learned that I have several food allergies, and since changing my diet, I have seen a dramatic change in my health. I am almost never sick, unless I accidentally mess up my food. To wake up feeling unwell was strange for me. It started off with feeling very achy, tired, everything was sensitive to the touch, and I had a headache. 

Within the first hour after I arrived at the retreat, I realized that I needed to rest. Thankfully, I was able to isolate in my own room. Over the following three days, I spent 90 percent of my time sleeping. While I did not have a thermometer, I knew that my fever was much higher than I typically experience. My teammates were very kind to check in on me every few hours with water and tea. 

I experienced a high fever, a cough, a terrible headache, and loss of voice and breath. The voice was the strange one for me. As I attempted to talk, I realized that I was unable to get enough air out of my lungs to produce sound. My fever, cough, and headaches continued for six days; the lack of air lasted for just over a week. 

After my fever, I started to feel a new sensation. I remember calling my mom and describing it to her because it was so strange. I felt as if I had jumped into a chlorine pool and water went up my nose and throat. I had this odd burning sensation and lost my sense of smell and taste for two weeks. 

During the entire time I was sick, it never occurred to me that it could be COVID. In April, I started to think I might have had COVID, and in June I tested positive for the antibodies.

 

On living through one of the world’s strictest lockdowns 

As I started to gain back my smell and taste, Spain went into a state of emergency. On Monday, March 9, I was in my language class when I saw my phone start to light up like crazy with messages from my three Spanish roommates. Spain had decided to cancel all classes for 15 days. 

We discussed in my Spanish class if this would affect us, and my teacher said no since it was a private language academy. At that point in time, I still did not think much of anything. We had heard about what was happening in Italy, but I never imagined that it would come to Spain. Italy seemed so far away! 

By Friday, March 13, one of my roommates was convinced that we were going to enter into a strict quarantine like in Italy. I could not even grasp the idea, it seemed so crazy to me. Saturday, March 14, the President of Spain declared a state of emergency and a 15-day quarantine. The number of cases in Spain had doubled overnight to almost 1,000. 

I was convinced that this was only going to be a 15-day quarantine and nothing more, but one of my roommates was sure this was for the long haul. She ended up being very correct.

The quarantine in Spain was extremely strict. We were to stay in our homes (or for us it is an apartment) at all times. The only exceptions were to go to the doctor’s office, pharmacy, or grocery store—but only the one closest to your home. With my food restrictions, sometime I have to shop at stores that are not within walking distance, so I had to have my food delivered to my door. 

After the first week, it became clear that the lockdown would be extended another 15 days. I made a note in my phone and kept track of the days. I ended up in my apartment for 54 days without leaving, except for six times to take out the trash for two minutes. 

It was a strange process every time quarantine would be extended. I remember thinking, “This is 15 days. I can live in my apartment for 15 days, no problem!” And then, “Okay, I can handle a month in my apartment.” And eventually, I just stopped processing the time. Staying inside became normal. I almost could not even imagine the idea of leaving my apartment.

Young woman wearing a face mask in Spain.

Brooke on her first walk after nearly two months inside her apartment. 

After 54 days, Spain allowed restricted activity outside. We were allowed to leave for walks or to exercise for one hour each day, within one kilometer of our home, and during certain time periods based on our age and risk level. At first I did not want to leave, but I started to take one or two walks every week. We had to wear masks, but the feeling of the fresh air on my face as I walked was a strange sensation. The street was constantly full of people walking. The police also walked the streets and made sure that no one stopped or formed groups. 

 

On ministry during COVID-19 

At the beginning of the quarantine, we had to make the decision to take Misión Posible, our youth mission conference, virtual. In two weeks, we took two years of preparation and created an online conference—three nights of about two hours live on YouTube. It was absolutely crazy and I learned a lot about filming and editing very quickly. One of my roommates was on the staff, so we worked together to film the fun activities and news segments for the event. (You can see Brooke starting at 12:35 on this video.) 

I think having Misión Posible at the beginning helped distract me and kept me busy, but also got me involved in online work quickly and got me really connected. Since I was able to build relationships though the event, I was able to join in several youth groups throughout the whole quarantine. In May, I was in a group text message with a bunch of youth that gave crazy challenges, like putting flour in your face or screaming something ridiculous out your window. We would all film ourselves doing the challenges and it was a great way to laugh every day, but also to stay in communication with youth around Spain and to build relationships. 

Two women work in a living room in Spain.
Brooke and her roommate film a segment for the online Misión Posible conference, which provided connection for her and for youth around Spain.  


My Spanish church had Sunday service on YouTube, with videos of different people who had recorded worship songs in their homes, and then the pastor would share from home. Church prayer meeting happened on Zoom; I had not been able to attend them in person, so it was really nice to join in during quarantine. 

 

On the suffering that surrounded her

Almost every night I was in communication with my friends. My closest friends in Spain are a nurse and two pharmacists, so they were working overtime during the whole quarantine. My nurse friend worked in two hospitals and only slept four or five hours between all her shifts. 

One of the hospitals my friend worked in was the worst-hit in Spain, and there was a point where they had people in every possible place, and there were not enough machines, and the medicine they were using was causing terrible side effects.

When we would talk, it would be a time of them just letting everything out. They were on the front lines seeing people really suffer and the horror of what COVID can do. That was really hard for me—not being able to physically see and be with my friends and my community, and then hearing about the terrors they were living and experiencing as they were on the front lines.

 

On emerging from quarantine

After 74 days, Spain began the reopening phases. The first day of Phase One, I went to have dinner with my close friends at their home. The moment we saw each other, we all began to cry. It was a weird sensation, it almost did not feel like we were really together. That first month that we could leave our homes, I think I was out every single day. We still had to wear masks, keep social distancing, and follow all the rules, but I was constantly with friends. I think we were trying to make up for lost time. 

Spain is a very physically connected culture—two kisses, hugs, just being close to one another. I think we have learned the importance of being able to be with people in person, however it is not the same because we cannot be close. It is still a process for everyone to figure out this new normal. And there are still many people who are not leaving their homes, because they are afraid. The government actually recommends that elderly people and people at high risk continue to stay in their homes. 

It is still difficult to fully process and comprehend everything that we have lived this year, because in a sense we are still living it. It is unknown how long this will last and what the future looks like. There is uncertainty about everything. The rules and laws in Spain can change quickly, which makes it difficult to make any plans. 

For the month of August, everyone is trying to enjoy vacation, time with family and friends, and what they can while we are out of our home. But what is to come for the coming school year, jobs, etc., is unknown. There is constant talk about having another quarantine in the fall. 

For many Spaniards, there is also concern about the economy. What I see when I travel around is very sad. Many, many stores, restaurants, and businesses have closed because they could not survive the shutdown. The unemployment rate was already a common subject before the pandemic, and now it is worse. 

 

On growing closer to God

The last few weeks, I have been taking time to pause, to try and process and just talk with God about everything that has happened this year. At the beginning of the quarantine, I heard a devotional from Deuteronomy about how God calls the people to remember, remember that he is there, remember how he has always been there. In the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded about how the Israelites would make pillars with rocks to serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness. This has caused me to stop, think, and remember. I am a big journaler, so I have been able to go back to earlier journals, read, and reflect on all the times God has been faithful. 

I am a very organized person and love having a plan, so living in a time of uncertainty has been difficult for me. As I’ve read my past journals, it has been interesting to see how God comes in and shakes up those plans, but while doing so, he tells me to trust him. And without a doubt, he has been faithful and his plan, his way has always been so much better than anything I ever could have planned. 

I think this year is another one of those times. I do not know exactly what is to come or where we are headed—I don’t think anyone can know that right now!— but God is calling me to remember all the times he has been faithful and to trust that he still is. I have to daily lean on him, because I don’t have anywhere else to turn, which has brought renewal and refreshment to my relationship with Christ. And I am very grateful for that! Because looking at the pillars in my life, God does big things in moments such as this.



• In these days of global pandemic, life and ministry require daily adaptation. Your donation to SEND’s Crisis Response Fund will help us respond to needs that arise because of the COVID-19 virus. Click here to give.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brooke Nagel
The very small number of evangelical Christians in Spain can leave Spanish youth feeling very alone in their faith. Brooke lives in Madrid, where she works with a team to develop youth ministry in the local church and to help those youth reach out to the unsaved young people around them. Brooke also serves as the assistant to the directors of Misión Posible, a national youth conference with an emphasis in missions and evangelism.