Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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How a small Spanish town became one of Europe's worst Covid-19 hotspots

Thursday 04/June/2020 - 02:10 PM
The Reference

When we first spoke, in mid-April, María José Dueñas began weeping within seconds. Her parents’ home town, Santo Domingo de La Calzada, had the worst death rate from coronavirus in Spain, she told me on the phone. “I’m so scared,” she said. Dueñas told stories of police clambering through windows to rescue the dying, who were too weak to open their doors. Regional politicians, meanwhile, refused to give town-by-town figures for the dead, stoking anxiety and encouraging conspiracy theories. Santo Domingo’s locked-down residents, she claimed, were being deliberately kept in the dark as the virus silently stalked the town.

Just like in cities, loneliness hit people hard. My closest neighbour, Santi, is a self-sufficient countryman in his mid-70s. He moved in near to me a decade ago, doing up his small barn. Santi is a man who needs to talk. Before lockdown, most days he would have coffee at the petrol station cafe and, later, take a walk up the river with friends. Now these were forbidden. “If you don’t speak, you start forgetting how,” he said after finding another reason to appear at my gate. Sometimes he sat on a nearby rock for an hour, waiting for some company.

Santi has a fine sense of humour and I was grateful for his easy laugh, even as I fretted about how far a virus might travel on the wind. Whenever we spoke of someone dying, he shrugged. “People have always died,” he said. But his health isn’t good and he was also scared. On his visits into town, the grocer and baker made him stay in his car while they put his food in the boot. There was no chatting. Isolation is isolation, wherever you are.

In Santo Domingo de La Calzada, the dead included Gregorio Sáez, a well-known figure in a town where the Catholic church plays a central role. The 83-year-old was prior of the lay Brotherhood of Saint Isidore the Farmer, which parades an image of their saint around town during its May fiestas. Santo Domingo’s five brotherhoods, or cofradías, are an essential part of local life. Some date back almost to the town’s founding by the 11th century shepherd-hermit, Saint Dominic of the Causeway, after whom the town is named.

“You cannot understand Santo Domingo without its saint,” Francisco Suárez, the cathedral’s abbot, told me. In his lifetime, the saint helped to build bridges, roads and shelter for pilgrims travelling to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, about 300 miles west. (Santo Domingo is patron saint of Spain’s civil engineers.) Work on Santo Domingo’s cathedral began in the 12th century, and the town has been a stopping point for pilgrims ever since. Today, much of the local economy revolves around the dozen hostels and hotels that offer hundreds of rooms to pilgrims.

Such towns are not used to tragedy. In normal times, the most dramatic events that local reporter Javier Albo, a one-man newsroom, covers are minor car crashes. Skimming through La Rioja’s local pages from March and April 2019, the most noteworthy stories concerned a modest swarm of bees and a few complaints about a “plague” of pigeons invading the town.

During the strictest phase of lockdown, residents of Santo Domingo tried to keep up their spirits. The police began driving around town in the evening and stopping every few blocks to blast music from their loudhailers and exchange applause with people on balconies. This ritual was briefly suspended after complaints that it was unsuitable at a time of tragedy, but soon it started up again. People loved the shows, which filled the emptiness with noise and coloured lights. Eventually, it turned into a caravan of municipal police cars, ambulances, civil protection and street-cleaning vehicles, which set out at 8pm and drove around for two hours with sirens blaring and loud music mangled by tinny speakers. Like any party, the music depended on who took control of the sound system: some days it was corny Spanish pop or children’s tunes, other days it was AC/DC.

“People started asking if we could do something for their kids’ birthdays, so we did that too – playing Happy Birthday,” Francisco Reina, one of the town’s dozen municipal cops told me. “Then a local baker offered to make them cakes, so we delivered those. We even got out and danced La Macarena.” Reina kept going even after his wife joined the sick and took to her bed. “We surprised one couple on their golden anniversary, playing the wedding march,” he said. “That man wept.” Now the police station is full of brightly painted children’s pictures, sent in thanks.

The only visible signs of the pandemic scything its way through the town were the muted to-and-fro of ambulances and hearses making daytime trips down empty streets to collect the infected and the dead. Reina and his colleagues rescued the very sick from apartments, helped ambulance crews, and took food to those who couldn’t shop. There was also anger. Posters appeared in windows and on balconies. “We want tests,” they read.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing was that Santo Domingo could not mourn its dead. In a small town like this, packed with relatives, friends and acquaintances, hundreds may be expected at the velatorio – the 24-hour wake with the body on display – or the later funeral mass. A local group called I Like Santo Domingo lobbied for the cathedral bells, which are housed in their own baroque tower, to be rung in honour of the dead. On the evening of 22 March they chimed solemnly for two minutes as people stood silently at windows or on balconies – a tradition repeated every Monday over the following weeks. It was, at least, a communal mourning. “That was really important to the families,” said the journalist Albo, who doubles as the group’s president. “At least they felt that people were supporting them in their grief”

Otherwise, the pandemic was measured in absences. It wasn’t just that the streets were empty and the pilgrims gone, or that the dead were being carried off. Easter went by without its processions of religious statues. The Virgin Mary and the Risen Christ remained on their pedestals in the cathedral. The weeping notes of a trumpet saeta, an Easter tradition that once inspired a Miles Davis recording, had to be performed from the soloist’s apartment balcony.

On 10 May, the town began five days of fiestas to honour its saint. The following day, as those parts of Spain where infection rates had dropped were allowed to slowly ease restrictions, people were finally released from their houses. The only group event permitted in this still-limited first phase, however, was mass. The cathedral’s wooden benches were replaced with plastic chairs, dotted at safe distances. After a trial run on 11 May, with just 17 people, seven masses were held the following day. Between each service, the cathedral was disinfected.

The highlight of the fiestas is the spectacular procession of the Doncellas, when three dozen young women in long white dresses and veils carry baskets of bread covered with white linen on their heads. Like everything else, this was cancelled. “We’ll see if we can do it later in the year,” the abbot told me. Not since 1943, when the town suffered a typhus outbreak, had anything similar happened.

But, with neighbouring towns suffering much less, some people had a burning question: where had the virus come from?

Given religion’s central role in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, it is not surprising that some blamed the church. On 17 February, a group of 46 parishioners had set out by coach to visit Rome and Florence. They took a bottle of rioja wine for Pope Francis and, after meeting the Vatican official Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, came back with the promise of plenary indulgence for visitors to Saint Dominic’s tomb over the next seven years. The measure, which remits the need to purge sins and thereby avoid tortures in purgatory, was a way of prolonging the 2019 celebrations for the saint’s 1,000th birthday.

Did the parishioners also bring back the virus? Italy, after all, is where Covid-19 began its rampage across Europe, and the group returned via northern Italy on 22 February, just as the first cases were being reported there. Many people in Santo Domingo, including one of the local doctors I spoke to, assume the virus came with them. Dueñas has been the most vocal accuser. “Of course they brought it,” she said. “But the church is too powerful to criticise.”

Abbot Suárez, who led the trip, is incensed by the accusation that his group is responsible for bringing the disease to Santo Domingo. “It’s a complete lie. The most stupid thing anybody could say,” he told me. He noted that only one of the group – the prior of the Saint Isidore brotherhood, Gregorio Saez – had died of Covid-19, “and the family think he caught it in hospital”.

Blame and stigma were part of La Rioja’s experience of the pandemic from the very start. The region’s first recorded cases, in the wine town of Haro, 12 miles north of Santo Domingo, appeared among members of its Roma community, who have been made into scapegoats many times in Spanish history. On 24 February, community members attended a funeral in the Basque city of Vitoria, which became one of Spain’s first known contagion points.

The civil guard’s toughest unit – the Logroño-based rapid action group – was sent to Haro to hand out quarantine notices to those who had been there. Conservative media published false tales of virus-carrying Roma from Haro sneaking out of hospitals. Local websites and newspapers even published names and medical records of those allegedly infected. “A lot of lies were told, and people were bombarded with threatening messages,” Silvia Agüero, a Roma activist and writer in La Rioja, told me.

La Rioja’s rationale for not sharing death figures for towns (or health districts) was precisely to avoid this kind of stigma. “We’ve never talked about ethnicity, or given information about individuals with Covid,” Alvaro Ruidez, a spokesman for La Rioja’s health service, told me. But the examples of Haro and Santo Domingo show that, if anything, the lack of information provided fertile ground for malicious rumours. “In fact, knowing this would have made people take it still more seriously,” one of the town’s sharpest observers, who asked not to be named, told me. When I spoke to mayor Milesi of San Pellegrino Terme in Bergamo, he said transparency was crucial to the town’s wellbeing and to its future recovery. Spain, meanwhile, still lacks official municipal data, not just for Santo Domingo but for other hard-hit rural provinces such as Cuenca, Segovia and Soria.

Jorge Sánchez believes the virus entered town from several directions at once. Ricardo Velasco, head of La Rioja’s local health districts, points to the Camino de Santiago itself, often described as the oldest tourist trail in Europe, as a possible source. Its popularity has increased tenfold over two decades, attracting 352,000 pilgrims last year. Half of them follow the so-called “French route”, which goes through Santo Domingo. Visitor numbers fall dramatically in February and March, “but even in these months there are thousands,” Velasco told me. The visitors are from all over the world. “They come in groups, so suddenly you may have a lot of Italians, and another day it’s a group of Koreans,” says Rafael Crespo, a doctor who serves half a dozen small villages close to Santo Domingo.

The camino brings in money and shapes local identity. During the 11 centuries that the route has existed, only wars and natural disasters have closed it. Shutting it down, in other words, means the world has changed utterly. As Covid-19 has spread, people everywhere have, at some stage, been slow to accept that. In early March, local doctors had lobbied for part of the route to be closed, but this didn’t happen until the nationwide lockdown was imposed.

Other towns on the pilgrimage route do not seem to have suffered as badly as Santo Domingo. The mayor of neighbouring Belorado, Álvaro Eguíluz, told me he did not want to blame its own moderately large Covid-19 outbreak on either pilgrims or people from Santo Domingo. “If we start doing that,” he said, “it will never end.”

‘No government in the world or in any autonomous region can claim to have got everything right,” prime minister Sánchez said at the end of April, admitting that he himself could have done better. It was a refreshingly honest comment. People such as Dueñas are right to complain about the lack of transparency, but there is no sign of other major mistakes in Santo Domingo that are not widely shared elsewhere.

In three months, we have learned a lot. It is notable that the rural black spots in Spain and Italy are places that combine the intimacy of small Mediterranean communities with proximity to the highways of global travel and business. (San Pellegrino Terme, for example, gives its name to a brand of fizzy water sold around the world, but also welcomes tourists to its thermal baths.) Normally, for those places, that is a happy mix. When a virus strikes, it can prove deadly. The connection between Covid-19 and travel is especially grave for Spain, a country where tourism generates 12% of GDP. Only the boldest pilgrims, for example, will pass through Santo Domingo this summer, which will be devastating to locals who depend on their custom.

In Spain, the lockdown is being eased slowly, in a careful four-stage process that will take up to two months to complete. When I spoke to abbot Suárez, it was 11 May – the day that Santo Domingo entered the first stage of easing. I felt envious. Candeleda was still stuck in so-called “phase zero”. We have since progressed, but we remain several weeks behind Santo Domingo in shaking off the effects of the virus on daily life.

Suárez had just held the cathedral’s first mass for a small group of people – an experiment “to see how it worked”. He was already thinking about numerous funeral masses to come. Elsewhere in Santo Domingo, groups of 10 people were now allowed to socialise, while bars and restaurants could serve clients at widely spaced outside tables. I imagined a town that had suddenly burst back into life. I was wrong. “People are still scared,” he said. “The truth is, we don’t know if life will ever be quite the same.”