For Dying Towns, the Pandemic Offers Challenges—and Hope

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In Europe, the continent with the oldest population, many cities are struggling to survive as schools are down and businesses run out

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If Europe is already the world’s oldest continent – ​​with an average age of 44 in 2020, projected to reach 48 by 2050 – parts of the region are a sign of the future. The average age in some municipalities in the province of Orense, where San Zoan de Río is located, is already above 60.

For years, the mayors of such cities have fought to keep their communities from dying out. The pandemic presents a new challenge, but also some glimmer of hope.

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The long-term impact of COVID-19 on demographic trends is enormous. Birth rates fell across Europe during the first year of the pandemic, exacerbating a trend that is set to have far-reaching consequences for economies across the continent, with a shrinking pool of working-age people forced to support a growing elderly population. Happen.

While birth rates have risen again in some countries, restrictions on international travel have reduced the flow of migrants to Europe. This deprives Europe of new arrivals whose high fertility rates have been instrumental in preventing the population of some European countries from falling even more rapidly.

At the same time, the pandemic has moved some people out of cities to rural municipalities where Europe’s demographic challenges are most pronounced. In Spain, the share of housing transactions in rural municipalities increased to 15% in September 2020, from 11% between January 2013 and December 2019.

The pandemic came just in time for the municipality of Villarino de Conso, whose nursery numbers were at risk after the number of children slipped below a minimum threshold of six. “We’ve been on the brink for many years,” said Mayor Melissa Macia Dominguez. The return of many young couples during the pandemic added five children to the register, guaranteeing the nursery’s survival for at least the next few years. “It has given us breathing space,” she said.

Now looking to rebuild its economy after the pandemic, the national government in Spain – where the birth rate has not recovered from the fallout of the pandemic – is pledging a sliver of billions of dollars to the EU’s structural fund to address rural populations. It is a hot political issue.

As Spain went into lockdown in 2020, a crowd of people returned to San Joan de Rio. The numbers were relatively small, but each head was counted at a place where there were a maximum of two births in a year and ten times as many deaths. For the first time since 1950, the population did not decline in the first year of the pandemic, stabilized at around 500 residents, and was on track to increase slightly in 2021.

The question now is whether Mayor Jose Miguel Pérez can build on those gains as people learn to live with the virus and old habits re-emerge. “We need to keep them,” he said.

Mr Perez cannot do much to fuel a falling fertility rate, a trend that has puzzled policymakers across Europe for decades. Nor does he have the means of some wealthy municipalities, which he says have offered financial incentives for parents to settle down with their children. But he is hopeful that the pandemic has given him a fighting chance.

Mr Perez opened a remote workstation at the peak of the pandemic, which he says was in high demand in the summer when many people return to vacation here. They also set up a kids summer camp and a paddle tennis court.

Reviving the local school is a coveted—if far-fetched—goal. “Children are the future,” said Mr. Perez.

The school closed 12 years ago when the number of pupils fell below the minimum limit of six. But local officials need at least 15 children to reopen it, and there are only eight in the entire municipality of San Zoan de Río, which covers about 50 villages in an area of ​​about 25 square miles.

Last year, he cleared more than a decade’s worth of dust-covered desks from classrooms and turned the school into an indoor playground as part of his long-term strategy to instill a sense of attachment to the city in the younger generation. was part. If he is successful, Mr. Perez hopes that one day there will be enough children to restore the school to its original purpose.

For now, he is focused on the more modest goal of getting people to visit more often or stay longer during the holidays to stimulate the local economy.

Decades of population loss have sent it and other small towns like it into a downward economic spiral.

One by one, businesses in San Zoan de Rio have closed because their owners have retired, making life difficult for the remaining residents. Along the main street, a handful of surviving businesses stand among closed shops that used to be a supermarket, a restaurant, and a local bank branch. To withdraw money, residents now have to drive more than 8 miles to the nearest ATM or wait until Thursday, when a mobile bank bus passes through town.

The largest employer is care homes for the elderly. Real estate prices have declined, with one exception: burial plots. Life moves slowly in San Zoan de Rio, revolving around a medical center and a bar.

“It’s like an open-air retirement home,” said Mr Perez, who is 39, among the city’s young residents. Many who returned during the pandemic had retired themselves.

Alberto López Perez, 39, quit his job at a car factory in Madrid and returned here with his wife, who had given birth eight months earlier. Becoming a parent has brought with it great relief the challenges of living here; The couple were forced to register their newborn in another municipality because it required regular medical care and there is no pediatrician in San Zoan de Rio. In the future, Mr. López Pérez fears that his son will struggle to find work, as he has.

“You can either work for the town hall or the care home,” said Mr. López Pérez, who makes a living from beekeeping and odd jobs for the town hall.

“Or as a gravedigger,” quipped Luis Fernández López, 34, who works for local funeral services.

Agriculture is no longer viable for most and the mayor’s efforts to lobby companies to relocate to this remote area have met with little success.

The mayor, a former telecommunications engineer, has made better progress connecting San Zoan de Río to the rest of the province by bringing high-speed internet to the municipality.

For older residents, many of whom have never used a computer, the town hall is now offering computer literacy courses. Amazon delivery vehicles – once a rare sight – are now seen daily on the streets as the pandemic accelerates a shift toward online shopping.

Write Isabel Coles [email protected] Feather

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