For dying cities, the pandemic offers challenges and hope

For years there weren’t enough children to support a local school in many villages in this rural corner of Galicia, northwest Spain, which have emptied over the years. decades by urban migration and low birth rates. Other schools that disappeared were abandoned or, in some cases, turned into social centers for the elderly, who now make up the majority of the population.

While Europe is already the oldest continent in the world, with a median age of 44 in 2020, which is expected to reach 48 by 2050, parts of this region are a sign of the future. The average age in some municipalities of the province of Ourense, where San Xoán de Rio is located, is already over 60 years old.

For years, the mayors of these cities have fought to prevent the disappearance of their communities. The pandemic offers a new challenge, but also some glimmers of hope.

The long-term impact of Covid-19 on demographic trends is significant. Birth rates across Europe have plummeted in the first year of the pandemic, amplifying a trend that is set to have far-reaching consequences for economies across the continent, with an ever-shrinking pool of people of age to work to support a growing elderly population.

While birth rates have since rebounded in some countries, restrictions on international travel have reduced the flow of migrants to Europe. This deprives Europe of newcomers whose higher fertility rates have been key to preventing the population of some European countries from falling even faster.

At the same time, the pandemic has pushed some people out of cities into rural municipalities where Europe’s demographic challenges are most pronounced. In Spain, the share of real estate transactions carried out in rural municipalities rose to 15% in September 2020, compared to 11% between January 2013 and December 2019.

The pandemic arrived just in time for the municipality of Vilariño de Conso, whose crèche was in danger after the number of children fell below the minimum threshold of six. “We have been on the brink for several years,” said Mayor Melisa Macia Dominguez. The return of several young couples during the pandemic added five children to the registry, ensuring the nursery’s survival for at least the next few years. “It gave us a bit of a break,” she said.

Now seeking to rebuild its economy after the pandemic, Spain’s national government – ​​where birth rates have not recovered from the pandemic drop – is pledging a trillion-dollar tranche of European Union structural funds to fight against the rural exodus, a burning political problem.

As Spain entered lockdown in 2020, a small number of people returned to San Xoán de Rio. The numbers were relatively small, but every head counts in a place where there are at most two births a year and 10 times as many deaths. For the first time since 1950, the population did not decline in the first year of the pandemic, stabilizing around 500, and was on track to increase slightly in 2021.

The question now is whether Mayor Jose Miguel Perez can capitalize on these gains as people learn to live with the virus and old habits return. “We have to keep them,” he said.

There is little Mr Perez can do to spur falling fertility rates, a trend that has bothered European policymakers for decades. He also can’t afford some wealthier municipalities that he says have offered parents financial incentives to move in with their children. But he hopes the pandemic has given him a fighting chance.

Mr. Perez opened a remote work center at the height of the pandemic which he said was in high demand over the summer when many people return here on vacation. He also set up a summer camp for children and a paddle tennis court.

Reviving the local school is a coveted, albeit distant, goal. “Children are the future,” Mr. Perez said.

The school closed 12 years ago when the number of pupils fell below the minimum threshold of six. But at least 15 children are needed for local authorities to reopen it, and there are only eight of them in the entire municipality of San Xoán de Rio, covering around 50 villages in an area of ​​around 25 square miles. .

Last year, he cleaned up desks covered in more than a decade of dust in classrooms and turned the school into an indoor playground, as part of his long-term strategy to foster a sense attachment to the city among the younger generation. If he succeeds, 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 holidays to boost the local economy.

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

One by one, businesses in San Xoán de Rio closed as their owners retired, making life increasingly difficult for the remaining residents. Along the main street, a handful of surviving businesses stand out among the shuttered shops that were once a supermarket, restaurant and local bank branch. To withdraw cash, residents now have to travel more than eight miles to the nearest ATM or wait until a Thursday when a mobile bank bus passes through town.

The largest employer is a retirement home for the elderly. Real estate prices have fallen, with one exception: cemeteries. Life moves slowly in San Xoán de Rio, around a medical center and a bar.

“It’s like an open-air retirement home,” said Mr. Perez, who, at 39, is one of the city’s youngest residents. Most of the people who came back during the pandemic were themselves retired.

Alberto Lopez Perez, 39, quit his job at a car factory in Madrid and returned here with his wife, who gave birth eight months ago. Becoming parents highlighted the challenges of life here; the couple was forced to register their newborn in another municipality because he needs regular medical care and there is no pediatrician in San Xoán de Rio. Going forward, Mr Lopez Perez fears his son will struggle to find work, as he has.

“You can work either for the town hall or for the retirement home”, explains Lopez Perez, who lives from beekeeping and does odd jobs for the town hall.

“Or as a gravedigger,” joked Luis Fernandez Lopez, 34, who works for the local undertaker.

Farming is no longer viable for most, and the mayor’s efforts to pressure businesses to move into this remote area have met with little success.

The mayor, a former telecommunications engineer, has made better progress in connecting San Xoán de Rio with the rest of the province by bringing broadband internet to the municipality.

For older residents, many of whom have never used a computer, the town hall now offers introductory computer courses. Amazon’s once-rare delivery vehicles are now spotted on the roads daily as the pandemic accelerates the shift to online shopping.

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