Coping with Covid-19 in a ‘pueblo blanco’

I’m afraid I am one of those people who feels ill whenever I am confronted with the jingoistic boastfulness, British exceptionalism and tribalism generated by Brexit.  It is especially sickening to see it amplified in any public statements made by the Government in connection with the pandemic. I have never been willing to be dragged into tribalism, something which I still associate with a pupil I taught in Suffolk over forty years ago (and yes, I still remember his name!). Like many pupils at that school, he was a fan of Ipswich Town FC: “Sir, we won good and proper last Saturday, we showed ’em what for!” Why “we” rather than “they”? Tribalism, which I have since felt is a reflection of the individual’s own insecurity and the need to belong to… a tribe!

At that same Suffolk school, I learnt something new about a country and a people I had thought I knew well: Spain and the Spanish. We (the school… my tribalism on show here!) often hosted Spanish students on a summer holiday English course. Being responsible some years for ‘the social programme’, I used to tear my hair out at the inaction and prevarication of the Spanish students when they were supposed to be preparing a Fiesta española to thank their host families. However, time and again they pulled out the stops at the last minute, and provided Spanish food, drink and entertainment to delight us all! It was the same with the 1992 Olympic Games: international commentators were doubtful as to whether Barcelona would be ready in time, but it was, and the games were extremely successful!

 Back to ‘tribalism’. On one occasion I arranged an excursion to Cambridge where, among other activities, I introduced the Spanish students to punting on the Cam. As I pushed away from the boatyard, the guy said: “Sir, you’re punting from the wrong end!” I was well practised at punting ‘from the right end’ on the Isis (Oxford’s portion of the Thames), so I just glared, and then nodded when he exclaimed: “Oh, so you’re Dark Blue!” Tribalism!

In the light of the above, it has been interesting, if galling, to see to what degree British exceptionalism, exploited by Brexit, is now generating the sort of tribalism I loathe in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. ‘World-beating’, ‘first in the world’, ‘moon-shot’, ‘better than…’ have become as over-used as ‘robust’ and ‘we have always been clear’, added to the blatant lies, cronyism, corruption and policy failures. All too often, reality has not lived up to the promises, as with Brexit. All too often, comparisons have been made with other countries, especially our EU neighbours, just so long as the comparison is favourable to ‘Tribal Britain’. This has caused me to keep a close eye on how Spain has been coping with the pandemic, and specifically in the mountain village where we spend as much time as we can, albeit not since January 2020.

The village in question is a pueblo blanco, a white village nestling on a mountainside part way between the coast and the highest peak, a few miles east of Málaga; population about 1,000, including many foreigners of 28 different nationalities, most of whom live in the campo, on the hillsides around the village. Many of the Spanish inhabitants work in construction in the nearby towns and surrounding area, or in tourism, hospitality or service industries in the village or on the coast. Most also have a cortijo, a smallholding in the surrounding hills and valleys, where they spend hours in their spare time after a full day’s work, growing sub-tropical fruit. Farage should have washed his mouth out when he alleged that southern Europeans were lazy. I’d like to see him working the hard ground under the baking sun on precipitous hillsides. Great coming from such a pumped-up, xenophobic hypocrite.

The main town near our village has been hit quite badly by Covid. Given that so many of the villagers commute to work there, it was inevitable that the pandemic would come to the village. However, without the murmur of a boast or an unrealistic target, or indeed anything but a realistic, practical approach, the village has coped well, though it’s not out of the woods yet.

The first thing, at the time of the original lockdown, was that the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall), delivered face-masks to all of the inhabitants, many of whom live in the campo, and child-sized masks were issued to the school. This has been repeated at various stages of the pandemic, as has the process of disinfecting the streets. Throughout, the wearing of masks has been compulsory outdoors, as well as in shops and on public transport, with instant fines for failure to comply. People even have to wear a face-mask when travelling by car if accompanied by someone from a different household.  Guidance and restrictions have always been very clear, disseminated by the Ayuntamiento on Facebook and elsewhere, and on the other local Facebook page favoured by foreigners. There is also an online newspaper for the district which publicises the official national and regional pronouncements on current restrictions, and pertinent statistics.

In sharp contrast with our Government’s wishy-washy’ guidance’ on what is meant by taking exercise, ‘staying local’, the Spanish authorities have been much more specific. Indeed, one national online newspaper provided an interactive map: put in your postcode, and the map showed a circle with your home at the centre, circumscribing the area within which you had to stay when taking exercise. During the complete lockdown, certain times of the day were reserved for the elderly, plus a carer or family member to help them to take a walk when the streets were clear of everyone else. During periods when restrictions were more relaxed, one could undertake local car journeys, but always with written documentation showing that the journey was for an authorised purpose. The police were assisted by the army to monitor compliance with all of these regulations, as observed from their flat by Spanish friends who live on the coast on an occasion when we rang them.

So far, according to the official statistics published daily, there have been two Covid deaths in the village, and a steady ‘turnover’ of cases, most of whom recover. A message I received a few days ago, from a British friend who lives in the village permanently, mentioned just one death and three or four current cases. A particular problem, of course, is the high proportion of multi-generational families, where elderly grandparents live with one of their married children and grandchildren; the elderly are therefore at considerable risk of being infected with coronavirus by younger members of the household who spend time away from the village in the local ‘Covid hotspots’ for reasons of work or education.

Covid Kings!

Two recent events serve to show the extent of community spirit in our village: the Ayuntamiento distributed a beautiful poinsettia and the village 2021 calendar to each household just before Christmas. On 5 January, the eve of the Epiphany in normal times the children line the streets for the parade of the Reyes Magos (Three Kings). The Kings throw sweets to the children, and of course take presents to them during the night. This year, the parade could not happen, so instead the Reyes Magos took sweets and presents to the children.

Covid test truck

Tomorrow (as I write this), our village will be one of several in the district where mass Covid testing will take place; 280 villagers have been invited by SMS message to attend for the test. Transport (observing appropriate precautions) is being provided to the test site. Presumably the authorities want to establish the current extent of infection, as the vaccination programme is now well under way. The English translation of the testing announcement published on the Ayuntamiento Facebook page leaves something to be desired!

Covid test queue

As regards the vaccination programme, already published for the whole of Andalucía: the two charts show the dates for first vaccination of each priority group, and the date for the second dose. On a national priority list published elsewhere, children are also included for vaccination. Health workers are in the first group on the priority list. As things stand this week, since the pandemic is very much ongoing, the mayor of our village has issued a decree stating that the current restrictions are to be extended for two weeks.

So, where is all the bragging, comparisons with other countries and use of ridiculous superlatives which have characterised the UK Government’s announcements about the pandemic and measures to combat it? The Spanish, just as proud and independent a people as the British, don’t seem to need it. Indeed, I have not seen any evidence of the tribalism which our government seems intent on developing by constant gaslighting and manipulation of information. Like the Spanish students back in Suffolk, the Spanish authorities – national, regional and local – have just got on quietly and efficiently with coping with coronavirus without fuss, and with no need to brag about it.

[Typical example of a recent public announcement by the Ayuntamiento, here in somewhat eccentric translation!]

MASSIVE CRIBATE IN ************. THURSDAY JANUARY 21 From the Health and Family Adviser of the Board of Andalusia inform us that a massive screening will be carried out next week in ************* where 280 random PCRs will be held to learn about the state of the pandemic in our municipality. Early next week, probably Tuesday, they’ll warn you via SMS quoting the 280 people selected for the test. Testing will be conducted THURSDAY JANUARY 21-15:00 HOURS in the pool parking lot. We strongly urge all those selected to volunteer for the test, as it depends on how the pandemic we suffer more effectively can be controlled. In case any selected person can not travel to the parking lot of the pool by their own means, please contact the City Council, and the Mayor or Lieutenant of Mayor, in the case of ***********, will facilitate transportation in a municipal vehicle complying with all security measures. Thank you