Migrant fruit-pickers find unexpected solace in Spain’s makeshift farmland quarantine centre

Moroccan fruit-picker Abdelhak el Yakoubi was dizzy and aching when he arrived at La Manreana, a farm school in Spain that has been turned into a quarantine centre for agricultural workers with Covid-19.

But less than a week later, the burly 46-year-old was back on his feet and preparing to be reunited with his family. He credited his speedy recovery to fresh air, peace and quiet and the chance to unwind with a kickabout or a game of ping-pong.

“I’m outside all day until 10 at night, relaxing in the fresh air, it’s really great,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the other side of a fence dividing infected and infection-free areas of the farm.

“When I first arrived, I was really aching on one side, had a very dry throat and felt dizzy, but now I feel a lot better,” he said, still noticeably short of breath.

Mr el Yakoubi was among 21 seasonal farm workers who tested positive for coronavirus who were self-isolating at the farm recently after being referred by local health authorities.

Some were sent because they are homeless, while others did not have enough room to self-isolate at home. All of them had only mild symptoms of the respiratory disease.

Mostly men, the majority are from Senegal, but some come from Algeria, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Bolivia and elsewhere.

La Manreana, which normally hosts groups of school children learning about farm animals and helping to make cheese and milk, lies in Lleida province, a Covid-19 hotspot in the northeastern region of Catalonia.

Spain’s three-month lockdown was lifted in June, but new isolated outbreaks among farm workers at two localities in Lleida have led the regional government to impose localised lockdowns since then.

About 25,000 migrants from Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe arrive between April and November for annual harvesting season in Lleida, a fruit-growing region that produces apples, pears and peaches.

The farm, centred on a rustic early 20th century farmhouse, is an idyllic spot, with wide views stretching over a plateau and a pretty approach lined by apple and pear trees.

Animals roam in an area divided off from where the patients spend their days, but those convalescing have access to a football field, ping-pong tables and large grassy areas.

The freedom enjoyed by patients and their proximity to nature at La Manreana is a world apart from the hotel rooms that are mainly used to isolate fruit-pickers with the virus in Lleida, said Jaume Graus, manager of the farm school.

“If you’re in a hotel, you’re there 24 hours a day for 14 days, shut up in a room — and some want to escape. If they have a problem the only thing they can do is telephone reception, who may or may not answer,” Mr Graus said.

“Yet these are farm workers used to being outside in the fields all day. Here they really appreciate being able to be outside, sharing, talking, dancing, playing football, bingo, water guns. On a mental level, it’s very different to being shut up in a hotel room,” he said.

Only two patients have tried to escape from the more than 250 patients received so far at La Manreana, which chose not to have security staff.

Mr Graus also prefers not to use the word ‘hospital’.

“That makes me think of respirators, hospital beds, but here it’s a question of passing the time. I think of it as a confinement zone,” he said.

One challenge the farm has faced, however, is finding staff prepared to don full personal protective equipment, venture into the infected zone and lead the range of classes and activities organised for patients, Mr Graus said.

None of the centre’s 11 staff, eight from its days as a farm school and three medical assistants from the state health department, have been infected since patients began arriving, he added.

Human rights campaigners say many migrant fruit-pickers have been in Spain for years, hopping from province to province in time for each harvesting season.

They warn that African fruit-pickers have faced discrimination for decades in finding accommodation during the harvests, forcing hundreds to sleep on Lleida’s streets every year.

Earlier this year, international footballer Keita Balde, born in Spain to Senegalese parents, started paying for food and hotel rooms for about 80 seasonal workers when he heard they were sleeping rough in Catalonia.

Lleida City Council said in June it would provide emergency accommodation for up to 150 homeless workers at a convention centre.

But Mr Graus said he feared many of his patients’ difficulties would reappear when they leave the farm after 10 to 15 days of confinement.

“Their bosses, when they learn that they’ve tested positive, don’t want them in the company anymore, and get rid of them … some come in here with accommodation, but by the time they leave, they’re homeless,” he said.

While some have nowhere to go, many others do not have a work visa, meaning their time at La Manreana can provide a respite from daily stresses, Mr Graus said.

“Some tell us they don’t want to leave.”

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