Coronavirus death casts dark shadow over Spanish town

After burying five elderly people in one morning, the local priest can finally remove his gloves, a job all too familiar in this central Spanish town blighted by death.

Coronavirus death casts dark shadow over Spanish town

These days, they no longer publish death notices in Tomelloso, a town of 36,000 located in the arid plains of La Mancha, about two hours south of Madrid.

Before the epidemic took hold, it was a peaceful town visited by tourists following in the footsteps of Don Quixote, the delusional would-be knight in Miguel de Cervantes' 1605 novel.

Known for its vineyards, Tomelloso would normally be gearing up for its end-of-April festival celebrating the Virgin of the Vines featuring floats, fanfares and carts pulled by mules in vibrantly colourful regalia.

But things this year have been very different, with Mayor Inmaculada Jimenez saying the virus killed at least 104 of the town's residents in March alone.

“I'm speaking to you through the pain… that we all feel over the savage way this virus has brutalised our town,” said the 38-year-old in a video from home at the end of March, not long after giving birth. 

Buried without family or flowers 

“It was only five burials today, but we've had as many as 10 or 12,” said one of the graveyard workers. Today it was 80-year-old Jesus who was being buried — alone, without family or flowers.

Only three graveyard staff were there, standing around his coffin as the priest gave a brief blessing.

At the burial of former bus driver Aquilino, 88, who died at an old people's home, three of his relatives were present — the maximum number allowed as Spain's death toll climbed towards 16,000.

Ana Alcolea, one of his four children, told AFP only she could be present.

“The other three are in Barcelona — two have coronavirus and the other works in a hospital,” she said.

It's not easy “to get used to the situation”, said Alcolea, 51, who was unable to see her dad during the last month of his life, except for during rare video calls with the help of the nurses.

Death notices are no longer put up here, says Alcolea, who believes the number of dead is higher than that given by the town hall.

Regional figures show there are 99 coronavirus patients in the town's hospital and many more are sick at home.

'We need heroes'

Worst-hit has been the Elder retirement home where Aquilino lived.

Taped to its front door is a sign seeking help which reads: “We need heroes.”

“We put it up because we're having a problem finding staff,” explains one of the nurses in this 170-bed private residence, wearing a full protective suit.

In mid-March, regional health authorities said 15 people had died at the home, although a local official said by now the toll was likely to be closer to “around 50”.

Appearing on Spanish television, the home's manager seemed completely overwhelmed, describing it as “a horror film”.

And when the authorities finally moved in, they said the residency no longer had a doctor “because he left”. Within the Castilla-La Mancha region, at least 177 of its 400 old people's homes have been affected by the virus, officials say. 

'All the doctors are sick'

Leaving a health centre after finishing her shift, 52-year-old nurse Belen Penaranda said the effect of the virus had been devastating.

“It's been appalling. It's hard to see people dying when you can't save them,” says Penaranda who normally works in paediatrics but is helping out wherever she can.

She says her former workplace had to be closed down as “all the doctors and more than half of the nurses were sick” because they were not able to protect themselves properly.

She herself has one green surgical mask. Instead of a gown she wears “a painting overall given to me by a friend”.

“Planes (of medical equipment) keep arriving from China but I don't even have a FFP2 mask,” she says of the white facemask which offers the best protection.

Near the town's shuttered bullring, three police cars sound their sirens as they drive past a building until an elderly lady comes to the window.

When they see her, they get out and begin clapping. “She's sick so we applaud her every day,” says one of them, clearly moved.

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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.