AP PHOTOS: Spain's elderly suffer as virus tears safety nets

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Josefa Ribas, 86, who is bedridden, looks at nurse Alba Rodriguez as Ribas husband, Jose Marcos, 89, stands by in their home in Barcelona, Spain, March 30, 2020, during the coronavirus outbreak. Ribas suffers from dementia, and Marcos fears for them both if the virus enters their home. "If I get the virus, who will take care of my wife?" (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

BARCELONA – The elderly of Barcelona’s working-class Poble Sec neighborhood, the generation who survived widespread hunger after the Spanish Civil War, started out vulnerable.

Drawn to Spain’s industrial heartland a generation ago, they relied in retirement on free lunches from neighborhood social centers. Many received medical care from the local clinic, where doctors and nurses made house calls. Social workers brought them groceries.

But the coronavirus pandemic has heightened their fragility, stripping away the safety nets that kept them fed and healthy and exposing them to a daily threat of infection that they know could kill them.

For two weeks, an Associated Press photographer accompanied Barcelona’s visiting health care workers and emergency medical personnel as they tended to Spain’s home-bound elderly.

“All the misery is coming to light,” said visiting nurse Laura Valdes after a day of house calls up and down the narrow stairwells of Poble Sec’s apartment blocks.

The autonomous region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, ranks only second to Madrid in Spain’s official count of virus infections and deaths, with nearly 30,000 cases and more than 3,000 dead.

As in similarly hard-hit Italy, Spain’s elderly aren’t usually being tested for COVID-19. They also aren’t being admitted to hospital intensive care units, where coveted beds and breathing machines are prioritized for younger, healthier patients with a better chance of survival. Nationwide, only 3.4% of Spain's ICU patients are over 80.

As a result, Barcelona’s elderly are suffering at home, alone and more isolated than ever. Few know for sure if they have the virus, but the threat that they might catch it — even from the visiting medical teams they need — has only heightened their anxiety.