Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago passing through Santo Domingo de la Calzada soon learn how devastating the Covid-19 losses have been. The town’s high death rate makes it one of the worst affected rural communities in Europe, but that is just boring ‘fake news’ for anti-vaccine conspiracists, for whom the virus is a hoax. More interesting for denialists is finding ways to use the opportunity a health crisis offers to further their ideology and sow confusion. Their successes can be measured in body bags.
At the height of the crisis, Santo Domingo’s death rate of 550 per 100,000 was more than four times greater than Spain’s capital city Madrid. Only a few northern Italian towns suffered a higher Covid death rate. The theories about the original chain of infection remain speculative but what is certain is that death stalked the narrow streets of this medieval Camino town for months, while all the news headlines of the pandemic focused on the great metropolises. The devastation inflicted by the virus upon southern European country towns like this was often proportionally greater. In a close-knit community, everyone is connected in some way to the dead and the dying. News of the latest victims comes by word of mouth: from the town councillor who had been enjoying a birthday drink with two friends who suddenly died; to the local police recounting how they had to break into homes through the windows to find the dead and dying. The local doctor told how 37 of the 65 residents in the Hospital del Santo care home had succumbed to the virus; then she herself was hospitalized together with most of the nursing staff. News passed around the town by word of mouth, just as news of the plague spread orally in medieval times, from person to person like the pestilence itself.
One factor increasing the spread of the virus was the denial of Covid-19. The virus was seen as something shameful, so other causes of the deaths were first suggested and news was suppressed by political authorities. The regional government was reluctant to issue a public warning because they feared reputational damage: this is La Rioja, a world-famous wine-producing area, and Spain’s tourism generates 12% of GDP. It is difficult to accurately determine the final figure for Covid deaths in Santo Domingo de la Calzada because so many early cases were misdiagnosed or covered up. Among the uncertainties, the once sure thing that residents of Santo Domingo de la Calzada know is that life can only return to normal through full community vaccination. This truth had been learned the hard way: Covid denial has no place in a town with a high body count.
Last week saw a double celebration for Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The feast of its patron saint is celebrated on 12th May, and just three days earlier Spain ended its Covid restrictions on movement between provinces, so pilgrims will once again be walking through this town which benefits from the Camino hospitality economy. The town is named after Dominic of the Causeway, an 11th-century shepherd-hermit who improved the road for pilgrims traveling to Compostela and built the town’s bridge across the river Oca. Last week, while the socially-reduced annual fiestas were taking place, teams of medics continued the long process of vaccinating the residents, in the Polideportivo, the new sports hall a short distance from Saint Dominic’s medieval bridge.
Large sports halls are used as vaccination centers in every part of Spain, and in the town near to me I also received my vaccination last week: fittingly for this Camino Postcard on the feast day of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. After receiving my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I was told to sit down and wait for 15-minutes before leaving. People were seated on chairs positioned at a safe distance, wearing face masks but chatting sociably as Spaniards always do. Two words came up frequently in the conversation: relief and responsibility. We all felt relieved to have been given our first vaccine dose, and everyone agreed that it was a civic responsibility to build collective immunity.
As we talked, a shared story emerged, for we were all in the same age group, and we remembered our first school vaccinations in 1960s Spain. In those days the emerging emphasis on a healthy diet and vitamins was a novelty, as Spain came out of decades of hardship, and a US aid program supplied free milk to school children. (Aid was linked to a deal on military bases in Spain.) We all remembered the milk arriving and we recalled how some parents told their children not to drink it. They said the calcium would be bad for them! We laughed as we recalled such primitive thinking. In the schoolyard, some children threw their full bottles of milk over the schoolyard wall, as instructed by their parents, and they mimed the recoil from an explosion as if they were lobbing hand grenades! The headteacher lined us all up and gave us a health lecture, and that was the end of it. Ignorance has always been with us, but the internet simply spreads the lies from a few denialists to a much wider population.
“Some may have rejected the milk,” said one man near me, “but nobody had any choice about vaccination! It was the law: we had to receive the jabs.”
In those days the inoculation programs were just starting—for chickenpox, mumps and measles, tetanus, and the most serious disease, polio. The leg-irons of those afflicted with polio were a common sight in school in those days, and we reflected that in modern Spain we saw fewer signs of physical disability in the streets.
So we talked, in the manner of elders from a more primitive age, sitting around the campfire and perhaps recalling how life was harder before someone invented the wheel. Ours was the discourse of people from a book-based age of learning, where expert opinion was still important, facts mattered, and the shared wisdom of the community had a respect for medics and science. Every one of this cohort of similar age would have been brought up and educated Catholic. Science was learned alongside faith and strong identification with their community, their pueblo: a word that means not just a place but a people. Pope Francis in Let Us Dream contrasts the Covid negationists with such community-minded people as these:
“Some groups protested, refusing to keep their distance, marching against travel restrictions—as if measures that governments must impose for the good of their people constitute some kind of political assault on autonomy or personal freedom! Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens, and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.”
We left the sports hall after obediently staying for our 15-minute wait, and in fact extending it to half an hour as we re-told the community story about how and why we were glad to receive our vaccines. As I walked out, I saw teenagers on a sports center basketball court, playing three-a-side and all were wearing face masks, obediently following the rules even while exercising energetically. I thought of those anti-maskers shouting in their darkness: atomized individuals, self-referencing Catholic bloggers, preaching rebellion against Covid safety measures. From a world where only the odd uneducated parent told their child that calcium in milk was bad for them, we have entered a post-truth age in which the science doesn’t matter any longer: ideology and self-identity are the masters, trampling roughshod over the wider community good.
The shrine of the Apostle, the goal of Compostela pilgrims passing through Santo Domingo is three hundred and fifty miles to the west. There in Santiago in February 2021 a demonstration of a few dozen people wound its way through the narrow streets. The negationistas – the denialists – were on the march, with placards comparing vaccination with Nazi atrocities. They were led by a small group of four ‘Medicos por la Verdad’ (Doctors for the Truth), proclaiming Covid-19 does not exist and the vaccine is dangerous! Among them was Dr. Natalia Prego. This denialist was later welcomed as one of the international luminaries assembled by Patrick Coffin for his recent much-trumpeted event (discussed in the second episode of WPI’s The Critical Catholic). Dr. Prego was removed from her position soon after the Compostela demonstration, for bringing the medical profession into disrepute and damaging public confidence. This was long before she was co-opted a supposedly ‘expert’ voice in that event in the USA. Relieved of her medical duties, she was supporting herself from crowdfunding donations from her 12,000 denialist followers on Telegraph. The damage that such ‘professionals’ can do correlates with significant changes to individuals’ vaccination intentions:
“If such information silos exist for COVID-19 vaccines, then they may lead to self-selection of misinformation or factual information, inducing individuals to become progressively more or less inclined to vaccinate.”
There is some value in studying the validity of conspiracy theories themselves to help with the rebuttal of negationist propaganda. D.R. Grimes in a paper cited below provides valuable insight into the mechanics of conspiracy theories in general and how Covid-19 conspiracies are incoherent. So, for example, we might know instinctively the story that Dr. Anthony Fauci was responsible for creating the virus (!) is completely ludicrous; but laughing it out of court doesn’t disabuse the believers. The incoherence and practical unviability of such conspiracies must be shown up, and this can even be demonstrated mathematically.
Catholic anti-vaxxers identify as ‘pro-life,’ a Catholic moral principle they have captured and re-fashioned into an ideology. They are unpersuaded by the CDF’s clear guidance: “When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available… it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” Pope Francis himself in a January interview for Italy’s TG5 news programme said, “I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is not just about your life but also the lives of others.”
Statements like these that radicals do not like, coming from either the CDF or the pope himself, are simply labeled by them as the product of a flawed papacy, so it is difficult to know what more can be said using reason and appeals to authority. However, there is useful work to be done talking with ordinary Catholics who are confused about the things they hear or fearful of speaking up when they hear the strident tones of those expressing dissent. We need to be informed and above all remain charitable towards those who are being misled, while at the same time being very assertive in rejecting the ideology of the minority who are doing the misleading. They must be told their denialism results in an increased death toll: the very opposite of ‘pro-life’ and a grave matter for their consciences.
 Giles Tremlett, “How a small Spanish town became one of Europe’s worst Covid-19 hotspots,” The Guardian 4th June 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/spain-la-rioja-small-town-one-of-europes-worst-covid-19-hotspots
 Dr. Natalia Prego was pictured in a Twitter grab in Galicia Press news story in February 2021. https://www.galiciapress.es/texto-diario/mostrar/2656770/padres-salle-santiago-presentaran-queja-ante-inspeccion-profesora-negacionista-covid
 Article about the negationist group ‘Doctors for Truth’ in El Diario, 9th May 2021. https://www.eldiario.es/internacional/entramado-internacional-medicos-marca-negacionista-registrada-espanola-natalia-prego_1_7908610.html
 Loomba, Figueiredo, et al., “Measuring the impact of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on vaccination intent in the UK and USA,” Nature Human Behaviour, Vol 5, March 2021, pp 337–348. Full article available at URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01056-1
 David R. Grimes, “Medical disinformation and the unviable nature of COVID-19 conspiracy theories,” (March 2021), PLoS ONE 16(3): e0245900. This is a Creative Commons open access article available at URL: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245900
 CDF, “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines,” December 2020, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20201221_nota-vaccini-anticovid_en.html (See also the well-publicized statements by Prof. Roberto de Mattei and Prof. Joseph Seifert, April and May 2021, endorsing the CDF statement and expanding on it from a pro-life perspective.)
Images: Header photo, La Rioja Turismo; Saint Dominic xacopedia.com; ‘Doctors for Truth’ in Compostela, from a Twitter screengrab; sports hall vaccinations, La Rioja health authority.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).