Outside a former blue and white school in northeastern Spain, dozens of farm workers are waiting their turn to be vaccinated against the coronavirus by a team of nurses.
Spain, a key supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables to the rest of Europe, rushes to immunize the army of cheap labor that follows the ripening of different crops across the country as it approaches of the harvest season.
The aim is to prevent a repeat of COVID-19 outbreaks among agricultural workers in the northeastern regions of Catalonia and Aragon last year, which fueled a spike in infections, leading to localized locks.
“We had a very difficult time last year. Municipalities were locked down, fruit packing stations were closed because of the COVID cases,” said Jordi Janes, the mayor of Alcarras, a town of about 10,000 inhabitants near the town of Lleida.
“It gives us peace of mind,” he added, standing in front of the vaccination center set up in the town’s school to vaccinate around 400 workers in the region’s agro-industries.
When they enter the school, farm workers are asked for their identity cards and the name of the company that employs them.
They then go to another room where a nurse gives them a single dose injection of Johnson & Johnson.
“They gave us all great joy,” said Kelly Johanna Hurtado Marian, a 22-year-old Colombian woman, who recalled how many of her colleagues had contracted the virus last year.
She worked “a lot” to make up for their absence, she said.
Under Spain’s immunization program, most people her age will still have to wait weeks for their vaccine, but farm workers have priority.
This fruit-growing region that produces apples, pears and peaches typically attracts some 20,000 temporary farm workers from as far away as Colombia or Senegal for the harvest season.
But last year, the number of people who came to seek farm work skyrocketed as a pandemic-induced economic downturn put people out of work.
Many were illegal migrants who ended up living on the streets or in cramped housing that favored transmission of the virus.
Only employees of agribusiness companies are currently receiving the vaccine, but some locals want people who show up looking for work, even if they are illegal migrants, to be vaccinated.
Catalonia’s regional government plans to eventually vaccinate all farm workers, but says priority is now given to those who are already working.
“These people are here, sleeping on the streets, without being able to wash themselves and it is really easy for them to get infected. And it’s a time bomb,” said Josep Maria Companys, a 61-year-old local farmer.
“If they are vaccinated here, they will already be vaccinated when they go to other parts of the country,” Companys added, as he watched his workers clear the fruit trees.
Sleeping in the street
Time is running out, however.
The harvest season again attracted people looking for work who ended up on the streets.
“There is no work because of the virus and I came here to look,” said Ousman, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant from Senegal, who came to Lleida from northern Spain where he made a living. as a street vendor.
“But there’s nothing here either, I don’t have a house and it’s really difficult,” he added, in a central square in Lleida where dozens of migrants had gathered.
Amady, a 51-year-old Senegalese, has a similar story, despite being 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 almost a year and I said why not try to look in Lleida, ”he said.
After sleeping on the streets for three nights, he found a bed in a youth 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 contained and it made more visible the number of people sleeping on the streets. But it has been going on for years and it is still the same this year,” said the president of the association, Roger Torres.
Virus spike in Spain reveals plight of seasonal farm workers
© 2021 AFP
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