Could coronavirus deal a fatal blow to Spain’s bullfighting tradition?

Cape and sword in hand, bullfighter Javier Conde has started training again despite the ongoing closure of Spain's bullrings over the coronavirus epidemic and with no opening date in sight.

Could coronavirus deal a fatal blow to Spain's bullfighting tradition?
Spanish novillera Rocio Romero trains at Montes de Oca farm in Olvera, near Cadiz. Pictures by Jorge Guerrero

He trains with heifers, young females that are lighter and less dangerous than the fighting bulls, which can only be fought once.   

“You're putting up a good fight, youngster!” he calls between moves at the Montes de Oca farming estate in Olvera in the southern Andalusia region.   

On the sand of a small bullring set up at the foot of a hill, several others from his association are training with him, assistant bullfighter Candido Ruiz, apprentice matador Rocío Romero and a picador, who rides a horse carrying a lance.   

Conde, (pictured below) who is married to famed flamenco singer Estrella Morente, told AFP the pandemic had been “very hard and very sad”.    

With the bullfighting season written off by the mid-March lockdown, he has been busying himself with other things.

“At home, I've been doing everything: painting, carpentry… (while) thinking of fighting every moment,” he said, sighing over the “very complex situation” now facing the sector.

As Spain goes through the cautious process of rolling back the restrictions while trying to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there is still no date for the resumption of bullfights, which draw thousands of spectators in a season that
runs until October.   

“There are many families in bullfighting who are really struggling,” says Conde of a sector worth some €4.5 billion ($5.0 billion) and, who is upset that the government has not any offered specific measures to help.

Bullfighting has long been a highly controversial issue, with animal rights activists arguing it is cruel and should be banned, while traditionalists say it should be preserved as a vital part of cultural heritage.

Future unclear

Inside the farmhouse, sitting under a bull's head mounted on the wall, rancher Jose Luis Sanchez hopes the bullfights will resume in July or August “because if not, it's going to be a disaster for breeders, bullfighters, for festivals, for everyone,” he said.   

Romero, the apprentice matador, is more optimistic, pointing to the reopening of the bullpens for training and the renewal of genetic selection testing for heifers to decide which can be used for reproduction.

“I'm feeling positive, I think the worst is behind us… and bit by bit, the bullfights will return and contests with young bulls,” she said.    

Antonio Banuelos who heads the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders (UCTL) recently told reporters that the situation was “the worst ever experienced in the history of bullfighting”.

Not only was there the collapse of revenues, but there was also the risk that breeders would have to downsize to avoid the cost of keeping bulls.    

Industry figures are also worried about the loss of festival revenues, saying they had no idea when bull runs would be permitted, given the uncertainties of the “new normal” brought on by the virus.

“We don't know what health and safety restrictions will be required for mass spectator events,” said a source at ANOET, a national association representing the organisers of events with bulls.

READ MORE:  Covid-19 deals major blow to Spain's bullfighting season

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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.