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Before being recruited to join the fight against COVID-19 in a makeshift ICU in Madrid, Spanish nurse Marta Saldarra was performing rescue missions on the Mediterranean Sea.

The decorated nurse was working for the rescue organization Sea-Watch, which patrols the Mediterranean Sea on the lookout for distressed migrant and refugee boats, when the coronavirus reached Spain. 

“I joined the Airborne department of Sea-Watch, becoming the tactical coordinator and head of mission of airborne operations,” she told Global Citizen. “We were flying the medical team in a small aircraft, performing aerial surveillance, coordination of rescues, while also witnessing from the air human rights violations happening at sea.”

Prior to Sea-Watch, Saldarra had worked in coronary care units and ICUs in Madrid, and refugee camps in Lesbos and Idomeni. She is intimately familiar with working in high-stress, low-resource environments, and has developed a preternatural ability to improvise on the fly. 

After learning that her home city Madrid had a shortage of health care workers, she rushed to make herself of assistance, where she was assigned to work in a medical theater that had been converted into an emergency room.

Since then, Spain has become one of the worst coronavirus epicenters in the world, with nearly 19,000 deaths and 180,000 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization. The worst seems to be over as new cases are beginning to taper and people begin to return to work, but hospitals are still packed in Madrid. 

Saldarra spoke with Global Citizen about her experience as a nurse in the pandemic, how marginalized communities are being affected, and what she wants the world to know.

What's a typical day like for you during the pandemic? What are some of the new challenges that you're facing?

I’ve basically been working at the hospital almost everyday. I have worked under very stressful environments before due to my background, as well as in contexts where you have limited resources or have to deal with people dying, like it happens too often in the emergencies we face in the Mediterranean Sea. 

But the biggest challenge I’m facing here is that it’s the first time I’ve worked in a context where there is fear all throughout the atmosphere. This time the emergency is affecting people you know or colleagues, so you have to look after patients that might even be colleagues, while at the same time you might have a relative or close friend admitted who’s very sick at the hospital.

How has the pandemic affected the communities you're working with? What about refugee and migrant communities?

The virus and confinement situations affect everyone, but they’re affecting populations with low resources the most — migrants, homeless, all people who have been marginalized by the established system. There’s a huge difference here, as always; and not just from a health point of view but also economic, political, human rights points of view. 

It’s not “easy” for everyone to stay at home, and governments should focus on supporting the communities that just cannot comply with staying at home — if they basically don’t have a home, or if they live in overcrowded places, from small flats with many people living together, to refugee camps and prisons.

In regards to the Mediterranean Sea, for example, boats are still trying to reach Europe by sea. We’ve actually had crazy busy days there where authorities are using the coronavirus crisis as another excuse to try to not rescue those boats in distress and close their borders to them. 

This is not new at all, we’ve seen and documented it before, and migrants have experienced these illegal actions for a long time.

What's keeping you motivated during this time? How are you coping with the stress?

The main motivation is basically that I am aware of my privileges. I was privileged enough to be able to study and have experience in something that is actually needed at the moment. I would be dealing worse with all of this if I was doing nothing, knowing that I could give a hand.  

Also, since the first day at the corona ICU, I’ve been very impressed by my colleagues and the amazing job they are doing, giving their best regardless of the circumstances. This has kept me motivated. 

Also, I am so lucky. I feel very supported by my people and especially by my colleagues from my actual current job with Sea-Watch. They’ve supported me since the beginning when I told them I was feeling like I had to go back to the hospital during the crisis, which meant I would step away for a bit from Airborne Sea-Watch and the Mediterranean.

Is there any sense that Spain is getting the pandemic under control?

I’m not an epidemiologist at all, but I would say it’s too early and too brave to say that Spain is getting the pandemic under control, to be honest. 

There are so many health (and not just health) collateral damages that will require a lot of attention and investment for a while. We have to focus on rebuilding a proper public health system.

Is there a message that you want to share with the international community?

It’s time for a change. This crisis is a shock for everyone and, for once, we have to take this chance to really learn from it, and rethink what world and system we want to live in. 

It’s time to understand we are all vulnerable and we have to show empathy, respect, and solidarity within our communities and among any other communities. 

It’s time to restructure our priorities, put life first of all, and fight together for a system led by respect and solidarity and not by economic interests.

Regarding the situation in the Central Mediterranean, there is a thought coming to my mind a lot these days that I can just sum up with a question: What would you do, the responsible people from governments and EU, that support these “Fortress Europe” policies, if we health care workers just didn’t care and didn’t look after your sick relatives as we do? 

We are doing our job here, so you have to do yours, now and always, and just comply with international sea laws and human rights law. People at sea also have relatives that worry about them, same as you, and they die at sea if no one rescues them, alone and, much worse, abandoned.

You can join the global efforts in responding to COVID-19 by taking action through our Together At Home campaign here.

You can see all of Global Citizen's COVID-19 coverage here.

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