When we first spoke, in mid-April, María José Dueñas began weeping within seconds. Her parents’ home town, Santo Domingo de La Calzada, had the worst death rate from coronavirus in Spain, she told me on the phone. “I’m so scared,” she said. Dueñas told stories of police clambering through windows to rescue the dying, who were too weak to open their doors. Regional politicians, meanwhile, refused to give town-by-town figures for the dead, stoking anxiety and encouraging conspiracy theories. Santo Domingo’s locked-down residents, she claimed, were being deliberately kept in the dark as the virus silently stalked the town.

Dueñas does not live in Santo Domingo, a town of 6,300 people set among patchwork fields of cereal crops in the northern Spanish region of La Rioja. She was born there, but now lives 28 miles away in Logroño, the capital of this wealthy region, best known for the rich red wines that bear its name. Her angry, sometimes wildly conspiratorial outbursts on local Facebook groups – some of which have been deleted against her will – mean not all her old neighbours will welcome her back.

If Covid-19 increases tensions among neighbours in big cities, it can produce poisonous outbreaks of mistrust in small, more insular places like Santo Domingo. By the time Dueñas and I spoke again, two weeks later, the abbot from the town’s small cathedral had lodged a complaint against her for defamation. (She had claimed the church was covering up the role it had played in spreading the virus.) Even members of her own family were livid at the way she had aired Santo Domingo’s sorry status as one of Spain’s worst Covid-19 disaster zones.

Dueñas suggested I call Jorge Sánchez, a former town councillor and a well-known local figure, to get a sense of the scale of the disaster. On 9 March, he had met with a couple of friends, Enrique Ortega and Aldo Muga, at Muga’s bar. They had chatted about Ortega’s upcoming 51st birthday. “Now I am the only one left alive,” Sánchez told me. All three caught the disease, and the other two men both died at a hospital in Logroño on 21 March.

map of Spain and La Rioja region

As news spread through town that I was trying to count the dead, I received a call from town councillor Diego Mendiola. He confirmed that regional officials were refusing to give precise figures for Covid-19 deaths in Santo Domingo. All that residents could do was try to keep a tally. While we spoke, Mendiola stopped to read an incoming WhatsApp message. “That’s another one,” he said.

In recent months, television pictures have shown us the empty streets of the world’s great metropolises – of Madrid, London, New York, Milan. All have suffered badly. But outside the confined spaces of care homes and cruise ships, Covid-19 has been at its most lethal in a handful of southern European country towns. In Santo Domingo, without sufficient data from the regional government, it has fallen to residents to make their own estimates. Based on the number of messages he has received from parishioners asking for deceased loved ones to be mentioned in mass, the abbot, Francisco Suárez, now believes 42 people died in the six weeks after 16 March. It is impossible to know exactly how many were killed by Covid-19, as opposed to other causes, but a reasonable, possibly conservative, estimate – based on multiple sources including newspaper death columns, funeral home websites and interviews with the head of the region’s local health districts – would be 35.

That may not sound like much in the context of a pandemic, but to get a sense of how shocking this figure is, it’s worth comparing it to the death rate in the world’s worst-affected major cities. London had 86 deaths per 100,000 by mid-April (and is now likely past 100), the Madrid region was at 131 in mid-May, and New York City is currently 201. The equivalent figure for Santo Domingo would be 550. Only the northern Italian province of Bergamo has experienced something similar. Towns such as San Pellegrino Terme and San Giovanni Bianco have the highest death rates of all, at around or above 1,000 per 100,000 from all causes during the worst weeks. “The pain becomes communal, precisely because, in these small places, everyone knows everyone,” Vittorio Milesi, the mayor of San Pellegrino Terme, told me.

It is easy for city folk to dream of escaping to the countryside, as they seek safe hideaways from close physical contact or the claustrophobia of a locked-down city apartment. Viewed through this lens, rural towns seem like the bucolic, Zoom-connected work centres of the future. I understand how tempting it is to slip into such reveries. During Spain’s coronavirus lockdown, I have been living near Candeleda, a town in the province of Ávila, 100 miles west of Madrid and similar in size to Santo Domingo. I have enjoyed mountain views, flowering meadows and pure, fresh air. But I am also now familiar with the eerie experience of isolation within a normally tight-knit community. City friends are envious. In some ways they are right to be, but in others they are decidedly wrong. Nobody is safe from a global pandemic. Santo Domingo is proof of that.

Few countries have suffered as badly as Spain from Covid-19. In per-capita terms, it is believed to have the world’s highest rate of deaths – though Britain may soon overtake it. Some critics of Spain’s leftwing coalition government have blamed the severity of the outbreak, in part, on the failure to cancel celebrations for International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March. Across Spain, at the end of a week that had seen the first coronavirus deaths reported in Madrid, the Basque country and Valencia, several million people took to the streets. Populists such as the far-right party Vox have accused prime minister Pedro Sánchez of putting feminist politics above public health, but Vox also held a mass meeting at a Madrid bullring that day. The truth is that few politicians took the threat of Covid-19 sufficiently seriously at first, and while some scientists were warning of impending danger, most people in Spain did not realise that the dramatic explosion of cases that began a few weeks before in Italy was just about to happen here as well.

In Santo Domingo, there were already clues about what was to come. On 8 March, two elderly inhabitants, María Isabel Aizpurúa and Valentín Pérez, passed away – part of an unusual five-day spike in deaths. In that short period, six people died, seven times higher than could usually be expected in that time period. It’s possible that Covid-19 had claimed lives in the town even before then. Two deaths recorded earlier in the month now look suspicious, though it’s impossible to know the cause for certain. “The dead weren’t being tested,” said a doctor who dealt with some of them, but asked not to be named. “So who knows?”

When Jorge Sánchez, the former town councillor, tested positive for Covid-19 on 10 March, he posted a video online telling everyone. It was, he said, a way of trying to wake the town up to what was happening, and of combating the stigma associated with the disease. “People were treating it as something shameful,” he said.

Plaza del Santo and the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Photograph: Louise Heusinkveld/Getty Images

Santo Domingo lies on the famous pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago, which brings tens of thousands of international visitors through its cobbled streets and pebbled squares each year. Close to the centre of town, a stone’s throw from the cathedral, is the town’s only care home, the Hospital del Santo. On 11 March, doctors, nurses and family members – equipped with masks but little else to protect them – bustled around one of the home’s ailing residents, 85-year-old Rosa Andrés Rodrigo, in the hours before she died. She showed what we now see as classic Covid symptoms – a fever and shortness of breath – but which could also come from a winter flu. She died so quickly that there wasn’t time to find out. “At that stage, we still didn’t know,” the care home manager, Sagrario Loza, told me, “I myself was in there with just a mask on.”

Within a week, many of those who had tended to Rosa had contracted the coronavirus, including the care home’s main doctor. “She was so weak she couldn’t get out of bed,” Cristina Díaz, a pharmacist from a nearby village, who took meals to the doctor’s house, told me. Like many care home workers, the doctor was on a short-term contract and low pay. (Take-home pay for Spanish care home doctors is around €1,600 per month, and just €1,400 for nurses.) When the doctor finally got better, her contract had already ended, so she took a job elsewhere. Soon almost half of the care home staff were ill as well.

On 14 March, when Sánchez imposed a nationwide lockdown, he held up the country’s elderly as a reason for acting, reminding Spaniards that it was the pension money of parents and grandparents that had prevented many families falling into destitution during the 2008 financial crisis. “In this crisis, they are the ones who need to be helped,” he said.

In Santo Domingo, people were only slowly registering the speed at which the disease was spreading. On 17 March, a group of elderly Hospital del Santo residents sat around a table, dipping brushes into brightly coloured paints to make a rainbow poster with a reassuring message. “We are all fine,” it read. They hung the poster from a balcony and sent a photograph to La Rioja newspaper.

A week later, with care home deaths rising across Spain, a team from the military emergency unit – wearing white, hood-to-toe protection suits – were sent to inspect the Hospital del Santo. They helped to reorganise the centre into different zones, and returned daily to teach staff safety protocols, disinfect corridors and clean out the rooms of the dead. “Their work was tremendously important to us,” Loza told me. Tests eventually showed 37 of the 65 residents – including five elderly nuns, living in their own wing – had Covid-19. Remarkably, most survived. Loza says there were five confirmed Covid-19 deaths, and suspects the disease was responsible for four more. “We can’t say when it started,” she said. Elsewhere in the country, military units were discovering care home residents “completely abandoned, sometimes even dead in their beds”, the defence minister Margarita Robles told reporters. In Madrid, almost one in seven care home residents has died – nearly 6,000 people, according to state broadcaster RTVE.

Prime minister Pedro Sánchez (centre) and colleagues observing a minute’s silence at the start of Spain’s 10 days of national mourning, 27 May. Photograph: Fernando Calvo/LA MONCLOA/AFP/Getty Images

Spain’s health services are run by its 17 regional governments, which have each handled the pandemic in their own way – some choosing to release detailed data, others withholding it. La Rioja is a semi-autonomous region, with a population of just 315,000 and one of the highest living standards in Spain. Between March and late May, it recorded 4,052 cases and 361 deaths, making it Spain’s third-worst region in per-capita terms, but the regional government has refused to produce a town-by-town breakdown of deaths – a stance that has encouraged people such as Dueñas to see a conspiracy of silence. At daily press briefings in Logroño on 21 and 22 March, questions from La Rioja newspaper about Santo Domingo were batted away, even as evidence was mounting that the town was suffering a particularly severe outbreak of Covid-19. “The government’s spokeswoman, Chus del Río, basically answered that there was no point in talking about individual local outbreaks because the whole of La Rioja was affected,” the newspaper reported.

On the town’s main Facebook group, which began life as a place to post fond childhood memories of schoolteachers, shopkeepers, nuns and priests, there was outrage. Why weren’t they being told? How many had really died? “Do they think we are stupid? We live here, we can all see what is happening,” complained one group member. A spokesman for La Rioja’s regional government told me that the decision not to give details from specific towns was to prevent them being stigmatised. But withholding information also prevented more searching questions about exactly why Santo Domingo was suffering so badly – and whether more could be done to save its residents.

Lockdown has meant different things in different places. Spain’s has been among the strictest, and was no less strictly observed in the countryside than in cities. Outdoor exercise was banned and children under the age of 13 were not allowed to leave home for 45 days. Some Spaniards embraced the restrictions with inquisitorial fervour. The media began using the phrase “balcony police” to describe people who hurled insults at passersby who seemed to be breaking lockdown rules. In Madrid, even medical staff on their way to work were sometimes pelted with eggs. This was not just a city thing. In Santo Domingo, too, people complained about the zeal of these “window cops”. In some rural towns, including both Santo Domingo and Candeleda where I’m living, the lockdown was enforced not only by residents and police, but also army patrol units.

Rural lockdown has certain advantages. In Candeleda, in mid-March, I had a conversation – shouted from one field to another – with a neighbour who was counting his cattle. “We’ll always be alright here,” he roared. “If necessary, we can just kill a pig or barter our vegetables.” Rural subsistence was suddenly an advantage, and people knew it. As weeks went by, I watched wild flowers paint the valley with streaks of red, yellow and purple. I saw wild boar and otters scurry through fields occupied by sheep, cattle and horses.

Pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago, which runs through Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Photograph: Alamy

But this was no idyll. The internet kept me, and the rest of the town, hooked on the minute-by-minute narrative of death. There were still loved ones to fret about. The countryside was strangely still and hushed. There were no clanking tractors, petrol-powered bush-cutters, jangling goat bells, braying mules or cussing herdsmen. Most of the local farmers live in town, and could only leave to feed livestock. I even missed things that normally bothered me. Distant traffic and overhead flights – tiny pinpricks of moving light in the night sky – disappeared. I was too far away from town to share the evening applause for health workers that boosted morale and upheld the sense of community.

Just like in cities, loneliness hit people hard. My closest neighbour, Santi, is a self-sufficient countryman in his mid-70s. He moved in near to me a decade ago, doing up his small barn. Santi is a man who needs to talk. Before lockdown, most days he would have coffee at the petrol station cafe and, later, take a walk up the river with friends. Now these were forbidden. “If you don’t speak, you start forgetting how,” he said after finding another reason to appear at my gate. Sometimes he sat on a nearby rock for an hour, waiting for some company.

Santi has a fine sense of humour and I was grateful for his easy laugh, even as I fretted about how far a virus might travel on the wind. Whenever we spoke of someone dying, he shrugged. “People have always died,” he said. But his health isn’t good and he was also scared. On his visits into town, the grocer and baker made him stay in his car while they put his food in the boot. There was no chatting. Isolation is isolation, wherever you are.

In Santo Domingo de La Calzada, the dead included Gregorio Sáez, a well-known figure in a town where the Catholic church plays a central role. The 83-year-old was prior of the lay Brotherhood of Saint Isidore the Farmer, which parades an image of their saint around town during its May fiestas. Santo Domingo’s five brotherhoods, or cofradías, are an essential part of local life. Some date back almost to the town’s founding by the 11th century shepherd-hermit, Saint Dominic of the Causeway, after whom the town is named.

“You cannot understand Santo Domingo without its saint,” Francisco Suárez, the cathedral’s abbot, told me. In his lifetime, the saint helped to build bridges, roads and shelter for pilgrims travelling to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, about 300 miles west. (Santo Domingo is patron saint of Spain’s civil engineers.) Work on Santo Domingo’s cathedral began in the 12th century, and the town has been a stopping point for pilgrims ever since. Today, much of the local economy revolves around the dozen hostels and hotels that offer hundreds of rooms to pilgrims.

Such towns are not used to tragedy. In normal times, the most dramatic events that local reporter Javier Albo, a one-man newsroom, covers are minor car crashes. Skimming through La Rioja’s local pages from March and April 2019, the most noteworthy stories concerned a modest swarm of bees and a few complaints about a “plague” of pigeons invading the town.

During the strictest phase of lockdown, residents of Santo Domingo tried to keep up their spirits. The police began driving around town in the evening and stopping every few blocks to blast music from their loudhailers and exchange applause with people on balconies. This ritual was briefly suspended after complaints that it was unsuitable at a time of tragedy, but soon it started up again. People loved the shows, which filled the emptiness with noise and coloured lights. Eventually, it turned into a caravan of municipal police cars, ambulances, civil protection and street-cleaning vehicles, which set out at 8pm and drove around for two hours with sirens blaring and loud music mangled by tinny speakers. Like any party, the music depended on who took control of the sound system: some days it was corny Spanish pop or children’s tunes, other days it was AC/DC.

“People started asking if we could do something for their kids’ birthdays, so we did that too – playing Happy Birthday,” Francisco Reina, one of the town’s dozen municipal cops told me. “Then a local baker offered to make them cakes, so we delivered those. We even got out and danced La Macarena.” Reina kept going even after his wife joined the sick and took to her bed. “We surprised one couple on their golden anniversary, playing the wedding march,” he said. “That man wept.” Now the police station is full of brightly painted children’s pictures, sent in thanks.

The only visible signs of the pandemic scything its way through the town were the muted to-and-fro of ambulances and hearses making daytime trips down empty streets to collect the infected and the dead. Reina and his colleagues rescued the very sick from apartments, helped ambulance crews, and took food to those who couldn’t shop. There was also anger. Posters appeared in windows and on balconies. “We want tests,” they read.

People in Logroño, the regional capital of La Rioja, protesting against the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, May 2020. Photograph: Raquel Manzanares/EPA

Perhaps the most disturbing thing was that Santo Domingo could not mourn its dead. In a small town like this, packed with relatives, friends and acquaintances, hundreds may be expected at the velatorio – the 24-hour wake with the body on display – or the later funeral mass. A local group called I Like Santo Domingo lobbied for the cathedral bells, which are housed in their own baroque tower, to be rung in honour of the dead. On the evening of 22 March they chimed solemnly for two minutes as people stood silently at windows or on balconies – a tradition repeated every Monday over the following weeks. It was, at least, a communal mourning. “That was really important to the families,” said the journalist Albo, who doubles as the group’s president. “At least they felt that people were supporting them in their grief.”

Otherwise, the pandemic was measured in absences. It wasn’t just that the streets were empty and the pilgrims gone, or that the dead were being carried off. Easter went by without its processions of religious statues. The Virgin Mary and the Risen Christ remained on their pedestals in the cathedral. The weeping notes of a trumpet saeta, an Easter tradition that once inspired a Miles Davis recording, had to be performed from the soloist’s apartment balcony.

On 10 May, the town began five days of fiestas to honour its saint. The following day, as those parts of Spain where infection rates had dropped were allowed to slowly ease restrictions, people were finally released from their houses. The only group event permitted in this still-limited first phase, however, was mass. The cathedral’s wooden benches were replaced with plastic chairs, dotted at safe distances. After a trial run on 11 May, with just 17 people, seven masses were held the following day. Between each service, the cathedral was disinfected.

The highlight of the fiestas is the spectacular procession of the Doncellas, when three dozen young women in long white dresses and veils carry baskets of bread covered with white linen on their heads. Like everything else, this was cancelled. “We’ll see if we can do it later in the year,” the abbot told me. Not since 1943, when the town suffered a typhus outbreak, had anything similar happened.

But, with neighbouring towns suffering much less, some people had a burning question: where had the virus come from?

Given religion’s central role in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, it is not surprising that some blamed the church. On 17 February, a group of 46 parishioners had set out by coach to visit Rome and Florence. They took a bottle of rioja wine for Pope Francis and, after meeting the Vatican official Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, came back with the promise of plenary indulgence for visitors to Saint Dominic’s tomb over the next seven years. The measure, which remits the need to purge sins and thereby avoid tortures in purgatory, was a way of prolonging the 2019 celebrations for the saint’s 1,000th birthday.

Did the parishioners also bring back the virus? Italy, after all, is where Covid-19 began its rampage across Europe, and the group returned via northern Italy on 22 February, just as the first cases were being reported there. Many people in Santo Domingo, including one of the local doctors I spoke to, assume the virus came with them. Dueñas has been the most vocal accuser. “Of course they brought it,” she said. “But the church is too powerful to criticise.”

Abbot Suárez, who led the trip, is incensed by the accusation that his group is responsible for bringing the disease to Santo Domingo. “It’s a complete lie. The most stupid thing anybody could say,” he told me. He noted that only one of the group – the prior of the Saint Isidore brotherhood, Gregorio Saez – had died of Covid-19, “and the family think he caught it in hospital”.

Blame and stigma were part of La Rioja’s experience of the pandemic from the very start. The region’s first recorded cases, in the wine town of Haro, 12 miles north of Santo Domingo, appeared among members of its Roma community, who have been made into scapegoats many times in Spanish history. On 24 February, community members attended a funeral in the Basque city of Vitoria, which became one of Spain’s first known contagion points.

Empty streets in Haro, another small town near Santo Domingo, in early March. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP via Getty Images

The civil guard’s toughest unit – the Logroño-based rapid action group – was sent to Haro to hand out quarantine notices to those who had been there. Conservative media published false tales of virus-carrying Roma from Haro sneaking out of hospitals. Local websites and newspapers even published names and medical records of those allegedly infected. “A lot of lies were told, and people were bombarded with threatening messages,” Silvia Agüero, a Roma activist and writer in La Rioja, told me.

La Rioja’s rationale for not sharing death figures for towns (or health districts) was precisely to avoid this kind of stigma. “We’ve never talked about ethnicity, or given information about individuals with Covid,” Alvaro Ruidez, a spokesman for La Rioja’s health service, told me. But the examples of Haro and Santo Domingo show that, if anything, the lack of information provided fertile ground for malicious rumours. “In fact, knowing this would have made people take it still more seriously,” one of the town’s sharpest observers, who asked not to be named, told me. When I spoke to mayor Milesi of San Pellegrino Terme in Bergamo, he said transparency was crucial to the town’s wellbeing and to its future recovery. Spain, meanwhile, still lacks official municipal data, not just for Santo Domingo but for other hard-hit rural provinces such as Cuenca, Segovia and Soria.

Jorge Sánchez believes the virus entered town from several directions at once. Ricardo Velasco, head of La Rioja’s local health districts, points to the Camino de Santiago itself, often described as the oldest tourist trail in Europe, as a possible source. Its popularity has increased tenfold over two decades, attracting 352,000 pilgrims last year. Half of them follow the so-called “French route”, which goes through Santo Domingo. Visitor numbers fall dramatically in February and March, “but even in these months there are thousands,” Velasco told me. The visitors are from all over the world. “They come in groups, so suddenly you may have a lot of Italians, and another day it’s a group of Koreans,” says Rafael Crespo, a doctor who serves half a dozen small villages close to Santo Domingo.

The camino brings in money and shapes local identity. During the 11 centuries that the route has existed, only wars and natural disasters have closed it. Shutting it down, in other words, means the world has changed utterly. As Covid-19 has spread, people everywhere have, at some stage, been slow to accept that. In early March, local doctors had lobbied for part of the route to be closed, but this didn’t happen until the nationwide lockdown was imposed.

Other towns on the pilgrimage route do not seem to have suffered as badly as Santo Domingo. The mayor of neighbouring Belorado, Álvaro Eguíluz, told me he did not want to blame its own moderately large Covid-19 outbreak on either pilgrims or people from Santo Domingo. “If we start doing that,” he said, “it will never end.”

‘No government in the world or in any autonomous region can claim to have got everything right,” prime minister Sánchez said at the end of April, admitting that he himself could have done better. It was a refreshingly honest comment. People such as Dueñas are right to complain about the lack of transparency, but there is no sign of other major mistakes in Santo Domingo that are not widely shared elsewhere.

In three months, we have learned a lot. It is notable that the rural black spots in Spain and Italy are places that combine the intimacy of small Mediterranean communities with proximity to the highways of global travel and business. (San Pellegrino Terme, for example, gives its name to a brand of fizzy water sold around the world, but also welcomes tourists to its thermal baths.) Normally, for those places, that is a happy mix. When a virus strikes, it can prove deadly. The connection between Covid-19 and travel is especially grave for Spain, a country where tourism generates 12% of GDP. Only the boldest pilgrims, for example, will pass through Santo Domingo this summer, which will be devastating to locals who depend on their custom.

In Spain, the lockdown is being eased slowly, in a careful four-stage process that will take up to two months to complete. When I spoke to abbot Suárez, it was 11 May – the day that Santo Domingo entered the first stage of easing. I felt envious. Candeleda was still stuck in so-called “phase zero”. We have since progressed, but we remain several weeks behind Santo Domingo in shaking off the effects of the virus on daily life.

Suárez had just held the cathedral’s first mass for a small group of people – an experiment “to see how it worked”. He was already thinking about numerous funeral masses to come. Elsewhere in Santo Domingo, groups of 10 people were now allowed to socialise, while bars and restaurants could serve clients at widely spaced outside tables. I imagined a town that had suddenly burst back into life. I was wrong. “People are still scared,” he said. “The truth is, we don’t know if life will ever be quite the same.”

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