Spain races to vaccinate farmworkers against virus 'time bomb'
As the harvest season approaches, Spain, a key supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables to the rest of Europe, is racing to immunize the army of cheap labor that follows the ripening of various crops across the country.
The goal is to avoid a repeat of last year's Covid-19 outbreaks among farmworkers in Catalonia and Aragon, which fueled a spike in infections and resulted in localized 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 center set up in the town's school to immunize around 400 workers from area agribusinesses.
Farmworkers are asked for their identification and the name of the company that employs them when they enter the school.
They are then taken to another room, where they are given a single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot by a nurse.
"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.
Most people her age will still have to wait weeks for their vaccination under Spain's vaccination program, but farmworkers have been given priority.
For the harvest season, this fruit-growing region, which produces apples, pears, and peaches, usually attracts 20,000 temporary farm workers from as far as Colombia and Senegal.
However, as a result of a pandemic-induced economic downturn, the number of people looking for farm work increased dramatically last year.
Many were undocumented immigrants who ended up living on the streets or in cramped quarters, which aided in the spread of the virus.
Currently, only agribusiness employees are given the vaccine, but some residents want anyone who shows up looking for work, even if they are illegal migrants, to be vaccinated.
The regional government of Catalonia intends to vaccinate all farmworkers in the future but says that for now, the priority is on those who are already working.
"These people are here, sleeping in the streets, without being able to wash up 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 immunized when they move on to other parts of the country," Companys added, as he watched his workers clear the fruit trees.
Sleeping on the floor
However, time is running out.
Harvest season has drawn people looking for work who have ended up on the streets once again.
"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 gathered.
Even though he is a legal resident, Amady, a 51-year-old Senegalese, has a similar story.
"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.
He found a bed at a hostel run by the Arrels Sant Ignasi Foundation, a charity that helps the homeless, after sleeping rough for three nights.
Its 11 beds are all taken, and there is a long waiting list.
"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.
COVER IMAGE COURTESY OF MEDICAL EXPRESS