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Village networks pull together to fight the coronavirus in rural Spain

In sparsely-populated rural Spain, where the residents are elderly and resources are few, neighbours are pulling together to help the old and the vulnerable weather the deadly epidemic that is ravaging the country.

Village networks pull together to fight the coronavirus in rural Spain

Until now, interior regions like Aragon, or Castile and Leon have come off relatively lightly in a country that ranks fourth in the world for its number of coronavirus infections, with cases soaring towards 20,000 and over 1,000 deaths.

But with the government imposing a nationwide lockdown to try and stem the spread, these provinces are facing a unique challenge: how to look after the frail and elderly living in far-flung communities in some of the least-populated areas of Europe.

A man waits for his turn to enter a bakery in Burgos, northern Spain on March 15, 2020: AFP

Sergio Caminero, 30, is one of a handful of younger people who have offered to do the shopping for his elderly neighbours. He lives in Lovingos, a hamlet of just 50 people about 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Madrid. On Tuesday, he went to pick up some shopping for an elderly neighbour.

“She's older and is quite frightened and tense,” he told AFP.

'Isolated but not alone'

In his area, they grow potatoes. One of his neighbours has goats' milk to share while Caminero keeps hens in his back yard.

“I give away the extra eggs. Now the hens are laying all the time and you can get up to two dozen eggs every day,” says Caminero who is confident that if things do get worse, as the government has warned, “at least those of us living in villages will be able to feed ourselves”.

In Teruel, a town in the mountainous Aragon region to the east of Madrid, the local neighbours' association and the town hall have come together with an initiative called “Isolated but not alone”.

One of those they are helping is Maria Garcia, 56, who has a permanent disability following an accident at work. She lives with her 88-year-old father, who is recovering from a strike, her 86-year-old mother, and her dog.

On Wednesday, a volunteer wearing a mask and gloves brought some food to
the house.

“I'd only called to ask and within an hour this young man was here,” says Garcia who says she will keep using the network “as long as we need it and while the situation stays like this”.

'We all know each other'


The isolation could end up being overwhelming in areas like Tierras Altas de Soria, a mountainous area of Castile that has seen much of its population leave in waves since the 1950s.

“We cover 16 municipalities, it is an area with a huge decline in residents and a population density of less than two people per square kilometre,” explains local official Raquel Soria.

“In a situation like this, the picture is even worse because the people living here are very elderly, are on their own and they are very isolated.”

Soria said they were trying to ring round the older residents “to see how they're doing”, to encourage them and to offer to drop off some basic goods.

“They're really overwhelmed by the situation but they know it's important that they stay at home,” she told AFP.

In such areas, various local authorities have given out the mayor's mobile number and local officials are delivering food and medicine to the older residents.

“Being a small town of some 2,000 residents, these things are easier. We all know each other,” explains Belinda Penalba, mayor of San Leonardo de Yague, about 200 kilometres north of Madrid.

Not far away in the town of Agreda lives Isidro Omenaca, a weather-beaten 81-year-old with a twinkle in his eye who has been toughened by a life that saw him leaving school at 12 and working as a labourer with his father.

To keep himself in shape, he always takes the stairs and rides his bike to the shops, he cooks for himself and likes to sit in the sun outside his front door. To his mind, the worst years of hardship were those following the Spanish civil war (1936-1939).

These days, people are “more demanding, less disciplined and less willing to make sacrifices,” says Omenaca, who runs a local pensioners' association and who deals with everything with a smile.

“But I'm not depressed!”

Medical system creaking

In the coming days, the big concern is that the limited medical infrastructure in such areas may well find itself overwhelmed.

“Here there is one intensive care unit with six beds to cover an area of 15,000 square kilometres,” says Manuel Gimeno, spokesman of a small political group called Teruel Exists, that was set up to defend the province's rights.

“If there's a relatively high uptick — and I'm only talking about a few patients — that could block the whole health system in the province,” he warned.

In Soria, where there are 12 intensive care beds for 90,000 residents, there are similar concerns.

Local lawmaker Tomas Cabezon wants the government to guarantee there will be an adequate supply of protective equipment, starting with masks.

“The most important thing is to protect our health workers,” he said.


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.