Spain’s other heroes: Supermarket cashiers on the coronavirus frontline

"Keep a safe distance!" barks a cashier in a Madrid supermarket, where working the till means braving the frontline in virus-ravaged Spain.

Spain's other heroes: Supermarket cashiers on the coronavirus frontline

Since a state of alert was declared on Saturday, most establishments have been closed save for those deemed essentials — supermarkets, food shops, chemists, tobacconists and petrol stations. 

The measures were put in place to try and halt the virus in hard-hit Spain, which has more than 9,100 confirmed cases and 309 deaths — the second worst-affected country in Europe. 

On a smoking break during her shift, Blanca Perez takes off the basic face mask that was provided to staff on Sunday by the management at Carrefour, the French supermarket chain.

“Now it's us cashiers, who are on the frontline, we're the most exposed,” says the 31-year-old, gazing down a deserted street in the centre of the Spanish capital.

But she herself appears calm.   

“A lot of people are dying,” she says matter-of-factly, while admitting she has “certainly not” visited her parents or grandparents to avoid any risk of infection.

Although she wears the mask, another of her colleagues does not.    “They don't offer much protection,” admits Perez.

“Even the health professionals don't even have what they need. Me, I feel a bit safer mostly because it means I touch my face less,” she told AFP.    

“There are some customers you have to tell to keep their distance or cover their mouths.”

Can't afford to stay home

At a Dia supermarket near Madrid's sprawling Plaza Mayor, a 58-year-old cashier who gives her name as Susana is only wearing gloves.   

“They haven't given us masks yet,” she says.    

Although the government has ordered the entire country to stay at home, she says stopping work just wasn't an option for her.   

“We need this money at home. What I'm most afraid of is losing my job,” she says, pointing to headlines warning that a new economic crisis is looming in a country still traumatised by the severe recession of 2008-2011.

And she is not alone.   

“Once again the strain falls on those employees with the most precarious jobs — the cashiers — 95 percent of whom are women,” said 51-year-old Rosa Galvaro of the CCOO, one of Spain's largest unions who works at the Alcampo
supermarket chain.   

She saw shoppers coming in as usual on Saturday, as if nothing had changed, with babies and grandparents in tow.

All the while, messages were blaring over loudspeakers inside the shopping centre where Alcampo is based, reminding people to keep at least a metre away from each other.

At Mercadona, Spain's largest supermarket chain with 1,600 branches, shortened opening hours were in place on Monday along with measures to ease crowding.

Security guards were organising people in well-spaced queues on the pavement and ensuring they donned gloves before going in.   

In a statement, Mercadona suggested that only one family member do the shopping “quickly”, pay by bank card and avoid buying disproportionate quantities following an unprecedented week in which panic-buying emptied shelves of most supplies from toilet paper to bin liners.    

The chain said it was using external cleaners to ensure shelves were disinfected daily, that that it had handed out “prevention kits” to all its employees.

Even so, at its Ronda Atocha branch in Madrid, only about half of the cashiers were wearing masks.

A manger said “they themselves decide” whether to wear one or not, referring to the employees.   

But in a Lidl shop, one cashier let it slip that there were no masks and that the German discount chain was “trying to source them” for the staff.   

“Companies have to act decisively and demand maximum compliance from their employees with regards to preventative measures,” Galvaro the union rep said.   

Customers must also behave responsibly in light of “the seriousness of the situation by looking after their own health — and that of the cashiers,” she said.

By AFP's Laurence Boutreux 

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.