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The virus that spreads poverty

Cáritas offers assistance at  churches, such as  El Rocío in San  Pedro.
Cáritas offers assistance at churches, such as El Rocío in San Pedro. / JOSELE
  • Extreme situation

  • "I never, ever thought I would end up asking for food”

  • The crisis is obliging more people to ask for help, including the newly unemployed, low-paid workers and those who have been laid off and are still awaiting payments

Some keep their heads lowered. This is the first time they have asked for food. Others have been needing help for months, or even years. Just before midday, in Torremolinos, the queue of people, maintaining social distance, stretches for a kilometre, beyond the Plaza Costa del Sol.

They are waiting to collect a bag containing two courses, a piece of fruit and a sandwich. Sometimes there are biscuits, milk or sweets, explains Daniela. She is from Ecuador, but has been in Spain for 13 years. She was working as a domestic cleaner, until the doors of the country closed to stop the coronavirus coming in.

It is over two months since she has worked, 66 days with no income. She has applied for every type of benefit going. "All, all of them," she says. Now, she is waiting her turn, like a hundred other people, at the doors of the Emaús social kitchen, in Calle de la Cruz.

Worst still to come

The Local Police control this area to ensure there are no problems. The number of users has shot up to 260 in recent weeks. Before the crisis, there were 150. The situation is the same in the organisation's kitchens in Estepona, where they attend to 220 people, 130 more than before the pandemic, and Vélez-Málaga, where they are providing 280 bags of food a day, 50 more than before. And the worst, they warn, is still to come.

At the same time as the requests for help have increased, says Charo Abril, the secretary of Emaús, so have donations from individuals, local businesses and major supermarket chains as well. "They are really getting involved," she explained. The councils have also expanded the agreements they have with the association.

What is most surprising is the number of people who are coming for food packs now, who have never been before. The crisis, following on from a major recession just over a decade later, has caught many families with no savings, unable to pay their bills. "Some people came after being laid off work, but when their payments started coming in they came back to thank us," says Charo.

Reliant on tourism season

Others, around 30,000 in Malaga province, have not received any payment yet. "We are also attending to people who were waiting for the peak season to begin because they were due to work in hotels and restaurants, but now they don't know what is going to happen," she says.

Many of the people who have found themselves forced to turn to social services in recent weeks had never imagined themselves in this situation. José Antonio normally lives on what he earns between Easter and November, when the beach restaurant in which he works is open. Or, rather, used to work: "I have asked my parents for help, but there are three of us and two of us have no work or sign of getting any in the future," he says. He has learned not to feel ashamed, although he admits that the first few days he stood in the queue were difficult.

"I know we aren't stealing anything from anybody, but you do feel a failure. You can't even feed your family," he says. And, choking up, "Please don't use my real name. Make one up instead".

Manuel is also in the queue. He works in hotel administration and says he will never forget the first time he came to the canteen, either. "I used to see it when I passed by here, but I never thought I would end up coming in," he says. He has still not received his payments for the ERTE that his firm applied for several weeks ago. He lives with his partner, who had a seasonal job in a restaurant. Sometimes they take it in turn to queue for the food. "We get here around 11.30 and get home about 1 o'clock, but we are very grateful". They have never had to ask for food before. Although they try to live one day at a time, concern about their mortgage is keeping them awake at night. "We still have a lot to pay off and we don't have any savings".

Social assistance

The Spanish Red Cross, Cruz Roja, is now helping three times as many people as before in social assistance projects. So far they have provided 5,630 vouchers for shops selling basic products and over 5,000 bags of food. Samuel Linares, the provincial coordinator in Malaga, confirms that in recent weeks they have seen a "sudden increase in poverty", especially among people employed in the services sector.

"We are experiencing a real situation of emergency ", he says. In addition to the people who already needed help before the crisis, those who had been dragged into a chronic spiral of poverty, there are now applications from workers who have no way of saving money.

Aware that the solution lies in recovering employment, Cruz Roja has reinforced its work orientation initiatives. Marco learned about the programme for young people through his mother, who receives food packs "because we don't have enough to live on, otherwise". Now he is doing an English course and another in computer skills and this has also helped his self-esteem. "I didn't used to be very sociable and I was a bit isolated, but this wakes you up. You start to feel as if you are back in the circle, part of society again," he says.

Linares says people need to abandon their prejudice about social services. "It is important that they stop seeing this assistance as something negative. These are resources which are available for anybody who needs them, just as if you are ill you go to the health centre," he insists. He hopes there will soon be a time when the economy starts to recover so these users will be able to benefit from their new-found skills to find a job.

More than a quarter of people in Malaga who had a job in February are now unemployed or their contract has been suspended, a figure which means that thousands of families do not know how they are going to pay their bills.

At the church of El Rocío in San Pedro Alcántara, Cáritas attends to dozens of people every day who have never requested assistance before, nearly all them employed in the tourist industry. Sources at Cruz Roja quote another startling statistic: thousands of elderly people have spent more than two months on their own. "We are very worried about them," they say. They know that poverty, like the virus, affects the most vulnerable the most.