‘Time is running out’: Spain races to vaccinate its seasonal farm workers

Spain, a key provider of fresh fruit and vegetables to the rest of Europe, is racing to immunise the army of cheap labour that follows the ripening of different crops across the country as the harvest season nears.

'Time is running out': Spain races to vaccinate its seasonal farm workers
As the harvest season nears, Spain is racing to vaccinate its farm workers.Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Outside an old blue and white school in northeastern Spain, dozens of farm workers wait their turn to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by a team of nurses.

The aim is to avoid a repeat of the outbreaks of Covid-19 among farm workers in the northeastern regions of Catalonia and Aragon last year that fuelled a spike in infections, leading to localised lockdowns.

“We had a really rough time last year. Municipalities were locked down, fruit packing stations were closed due to the Covid cases,” said Jordi Janes, the mayor of Alcarras, a town of around 10,000 people near the city of Lleida.

“This gives us peace of mind,” he added, standing outside the vaccination centre set up in the town’s school to immunise around 400 workers from area agribusinesses.

When they enter the school the farm workers are asked for their ID and the name of the company that employs them.

They then go to another room where a nurse gives them a single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

“They have given us all great joy,” said Kelly Johanna Hurtado Marian, a 22-year-old Colombian, who recalled how many of her colleagues got the virus last year.

She worked “a lot” to make up for their absence, she said.

Under Spain’s vaccination programme, most people her age will still have to wait weeks before they get their jab but farm workers have been given priority.

Agricultural workers queue to receive a jab of the J&J/Janssen Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre in Alcarras, near Lleida, on May 22, 2021. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Time bomb

This fruit-growing region that produces apples, pears and peaches usually draws some 20,000 temporary farm workers from as far afield as Colombia or Senegal for the harvest season.

But last year the number who came looking for farm work soared, as a pandemic-induced economic downturn threw people out of work.

Many were illegal migrants who ended up living on the streets or in cramped housing that favoured the transmission of the virus.

Only employees of agribusinesses are currently getting the jab but some locals want people who turn up looking for work, even if they are illegal migrants, to be vaccinated.

Catalonia’s regional government plans to vaccinate all farm hands eventually but it says the priority now are those already working.

“These people are here, sleeping in the streets, without being able to wash and it is really easy for them to get infected. And that is a time bomb,” said Josep Maria Companys, a 61-year-old local farmer.

“If they are vaccinated here, they will already be immunised when they move on to other parts of the country,” Companys added, as he watched his workers clear the fruit trees.

Sleeping rough

Time is running out though.

The harvest season has once again drawn people looking for work who have ended up on the streets.

“There is no work due to the virus and I came here looking,” said Ousman, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Senegal, who came to Lleida from northern Spain where he used to earn a living as a street vendor.

“But there is nothing here either, I don’t have a home and it’s really hard,” he added, in a central square in Lleida where dozens of migrants had

Amady, a 51-year-old from Senegal, has a similar story, even though he is a legal resident.

“I had a good job as a welder but I lost it with the pandemic. I have been out of work for nearly a year and I said why not try looking in Lleida,” he said.

After sleeping rough for three nights, he found a bed at a hostel opened last year by the Arrels Sant Ignasi Foundation, a charity that helps the homeless.

Its 11 beds are full and the waiting list is long.

“Last year the city was confined and this made the numbers of people sleeping in the streets more visible. But this has gone on for years and it’s the same again this year,” said the charity’s president, Roger Torres.

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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.