Deaths from viruses are hard hit in declining Spanish rural villages
By FELIPE DANA and JOSEPH WILSON
DURUELO DE LA SIERRA, Spain (AP) – When someone dies in Duruelo de la Sierra, a tight shirt, the whole community marches from religious service to the cemetery, accompanying the deceased to their last resting place. During a pandemic, only a few relatives are allowed.
“You are used to seeing funerals with many people,” said Alberto Abad, a 54-year-old carpenter who is also mayor and sees the virus as a tear in the social fabric of his city. “It affects you because you know all the people who live here. “
Spain has been one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 25,600 confirmed deaths, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. But while Madrid was the epicenter of the suffering, each death in the countryside is a heavy blow for the villages in difficulty.
Duruelo de la Sierra is in Spain’s north-central province, Soria, one of the least populated regions in Europe, home to declining communities amidst a landscape dotted with abandoned villages. Many in these declining villages and towns believed that their sparse populations would protect them from the coronavirus pandemic.
On the contrary: the relatively high percentage of older adults in Soria and the limited health care resources have created conditions for COVID-19 to have a particularly devastating impact on communities that previously had difficulty surviving.
The figures, although imprecise due to the scarcity of tests, tell the story: the provincial authorities reported on April 22 that 1.52% of the population of Soria was infected, against 0.44% for the whole Spain. The province had a 1.08% virus mortality rate, more than double the national level of 0.46%. Authorities calculate there have been at least 500 deaths in total in Soria since the start of the epidemic in April, compared to a previous average of 83 per month.
“In less populated areas, the transmission is slower, but when it strikes, it strikes,” said Fernando Simón, senior virus health officer in Spain.
Duruelo de la Sierra, a forest town of 1,000 people struggling to prevent the extinction of depopulation, is surrounded by green hills of pine, cow and sheep forests as well as stone remains from forgotten farms.
Abad, speaking to the Associated Press among the headstones of the city’s cemetery, said March 24 will be remembered as the “darkest day” for many years. On Tuesday, four residents were hastily buried or cremated.
Duruelo de la Sierra typically sees one or two deaths a month and around 20 in a year, according to the mayor. From February 26 to April 2, there were 13. Five of the dead had tested positive for the virus and others are believed to have contracted it.
“The village never said goodbye to four neighbors on the same day, never in memory of Duruelo,” said Abad.
Similar tragedies are taking place in Soria and other parts of rural Spain.
In Cabrejas del Pinar, Soria, a hamlet of 380 people, nine people, more than 2% of the population, have been lost due to the virus.
Eusebio Soria, who is now recovering at home in the village, said that his doctor had diagnosed him with the flu, but when his fever did not go away, it became clear that he had COVID-19.
“I thought it was there, but it had not yet arrived here,” he said.
Some residents believe that Madrid residents, less than three hours’ drive south, could have brought the virus when they visited their second home.
The province’s population has dropped since 1950 to 160,000, with many young people leaving for better education and employment opportunities in Madrid and other major cities. Of the 186 municipalities in Soria, 116 now have less than 100 people.
Today, the 88,000 Sorianos would not even fill the stadium of the FC Barcelona football club. With 23 inhabitants per square mile (eight inhabitants per square kilometer), it is one of the least densely populated places in Europe, comparable to the regions of Finland and the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Health officials say demographics – 10% of residents are over 80, four percentage points above the national average – have made Soria more vulnerable to the virus, which is more dangerous for seniors and those who have ever suffered from health problems.
Provincial leaders also point to the underfunding of basic services.
Abad, who contracted and recovered from his coronavirus, said three medical workers at the Duruelo de la Sierra clinic were not immediately replaced after being sick with COVID-19 and had to stop working.
Things were even more dramatic in Tardelcuende, 355 inhabitants. Mayor Ricardo Corredor said that when his only doctor fell ill, the local nursing home was left without medical care for several days. The house’s 21 residents were infected and seven died.
The isolated hospital in Soria had eight intensive care beds before the crisis. The figure was raised to almost 30, but some patients still needed to be transferred to hospitals in other provinces and Madrid sent medical workers.
“When 500 people die in Soria against a monthly average of 83, you have to face the truth. This has a psychological and economic impact, ”said Carlos Martínez, mayor of the eponymous provincial seat in Soria. “Health care cannot depend on an act of generosity.”
Mercedes Pascual, a caregiver in a nursing home in Duruelo de la Sierra, who spent more than a month and a half in quarantine at home after being infected, described the isolation as depressing and said the consequences promised to be dark.
“In the village, we all know each other, we are family or friends,” said Pascual. “We are very sad to see how they died. When things return to normal, it will be difficult to accept it and see the void they have left. “
Joseph Wilson reported from Barcelona.
Follow the AP coverage of the virus epidemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak