Virus spike in Spain reveals plight of seasonal farm workers

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Migrants who are seeking seasonal work harvest fruits stand in a square in Lleida, Spain, Thursday, July 2, 2020. Authorities in northeast Spain have ordered the lockdown of a county around the city of Lleida due to worrying outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus. Catalan regional authorities announced Saturday, July 4, 2020 that as of noon local time movement will be restricted to and from the county of El Segri around Lleida which is home to over 200,000 people. Residents will have until 4 p.m. to enter the area. The new outbreaks are linked to agricultural workers in the rural area. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

LLEIDA – In the 20 years since he left his native Senegal, Biram Fall has never slept in the streets. This week, when he ran out of savings after failing to find work in northern Spain’s peach orchards, he still refused to do so.

As part of an army of cheap labor that follows the ripening of different crops across the country, the 52-year-old responded in May to an urgent call for workers in Lleida, a major gateway to surrounding fertile farmland.

But migrants eager to recover from the coronavirus-induced economic freeze exceed the seasonal workers needed. Those who can’t afford crammed shared apartments roam the city center endlessly, resting under porches in squares or in makeshift government shelters.

Refusing to risk contagion among them, Fall counted the few euros he had left from selling snails foraged along roadsides and packed his things. Pinching his forearm, he questioned: “Does anyone think that the virus cannot go through black skin? That it only infects white people?”

“We are being left to sleep in the streets, treated like if we were stray dogs,” he added as he dragged a trolley along a highway, a plastic bag with a neatly folded duvet hanging from the other arm.

The pandemic may have slowed down in much of continental Europe, but amid dozens of infection clusters popping up across Spain, those among seasonal agricultural workers are particularly preoccupying health authorities as a possible vector for further spread.

In the town of Fraga, where fruit processing plants dot the surrounding farmland of lush orchards, 360 infections over the past two weeks have forced authorities to bring back the first localized restrictions since the country left behind a strict lockdown of nearly three months.

The nearby county around Lleida, population 200,000, has been the latest to go into lockdown, the Catalan regional authorities announced on Saturday, after infections in the province doubled in a week, from 167 to 325. As admissions to hospitals and ICUs are worryingly on the rise again, an inflatable emergency ward has been installed at the gates of a local hospital.