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POVERTY

Why food aid queues are growing so fast during Spain’s coronavirus crisis

Accepting food handouts for the first time has become reality for thousands in Spain where poverty has soared during the epidemic, echoing the 2008 crisis from which many have barely recovered.

Why food aid queues are growing so fast during Spain's coronavirus crisis
People queue to get food rations in Aluche. Pictures by Javier Soriano

Jacqueline Alvarez, 42, is picking up basic foodstuffs in the working-class neighbourhood of Aluche.

“I cover my face because I feel really ashamed because I've never had to ask (for food) before in my life,” she admits.   

Behind her, a queue of nearly 700 people snakes around the buildings, all waiting to receive something to help feed their families from an emergency food bank based in the neighbourhood association.

And such images are popping up increasingly across Spain where food aid handouts have leapt by 40 percent during the lockdown, the Spanish Association of Food Banks (FESBAL) says.


People queue to get a free food ration from the Aluche Neighborhood Association (AVA)'s food bank in Madrid.

For many people, it is the first time they've had to seek help, like Alvarez who has three children and says neither she nor her husband have had any money coming in for the past two months.

“My husband is a waiter and he has been furloughed but we still haven't received anything,” says Alvarez, who is of Honduran origin.    

“I work as a domestic help but my employers haven't declared me,” — meaning she can't claim benefits.

The problem is global, with Oxfam saying the economic crisis caused by the pandemic could push 500 million people into poverty.    

In Spain, the lockdown has hammered an economy with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the eurozone, second only to Greece. 

Worse than 2008?

“This situation has impacted, first and foremost, people who were already vulnerable before the pandemic,” acknowledged Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, “those who had not managed to recover from the effects of the crisis in 2008.”

As the economic crisis took hold, unemployment soared past 26 percent in 2013 before dropping to around 14 percent last year. This year, it is expected to hit 19 percent.

Although the current situation has not yet chalked up the same numbers, the impact has actually been worse.


Free food rations are distributed from the Aluche Neighborhood Association (AVA)'s food bank in Madrid,

“The crisis we're facing now has been exponentially much worse than in 2008… we have never mobilised as many resources as this in our history,” says Olga Diaz, deputy head of social assistance at the Spanish Red Cross.

So far, the organisation has helped more than 1.5 million people since the start of the lockdown in mid-March, “about 68 percent of whom have never come before”, she says.

Unlike in 2008, this situation has “also paralysed the informal economy” which many people relied on to survive the previous crisis, says FESBAL spokesman Angel Franco.

Even before the epidemic took hold, despite the economic recovery, Spain's poverty rate was “shockingly high” with its poorest living in some of the worst conditions in Europe, said UN poverty expert Philip Alston in February.

Surge in solidarity

But as the number of those struggling has exploded, so has the number of people volunteering to help out.

“It's incredible… sometimes they're queueing up to give us food,” smiles Esperanza Vivas, a volunteer at Aluche's neighbourhood association.    

The Red Cross says it has seen the number of volunteers doubling.    

And in some places, offers of help have outstripped demand.    

“People are calling from all over the place saying they've got this or that (to donate), and volunteers too, we have more people who want to work with us than we have space for here,” says Miguel Querijo of the Order of Malta Catholic charity.

At its soup kitchen in the working-class neighbourhood of Tetuan, volunteers who have been helping since the crisis of 2008 work alongside other more recent arrivals like Elena Lizaur.

 

“We lawyers have little work right now so I've used this time to come here,” says the 61-year-old Madrid resident.

But the charities cannot tackle the problem alone.   


People queue to get a free food ration from the Aluche Neighborhood Association (AVA)'s food bank in Madrid.

 

“Spain cannot afford to see images of queues outside soup kitchens as we've seen in these last few days,” Sanchez said last week.    

“For this reason, one of the government's first commitments is to activate as soon as possible a basic income scheme.”    

The scheme, which will be launched next month, is expected to help out close to 850,000 struggling households that are facing “severe poverty”.    

Until then, Jacqueline Alvarez and her family will just have to do what they can.

“I live day-to-day, I don't think about the virus,” she told AFP.    

“I think about what I'm going to cook and what I'm going to give my children to eat.”

By AFP's Thomas Perroteau

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COVID-19

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.

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