Targeted misinformation during the Coronavirus lockdown is provoking racial tensions in several regions of northern Spain.

As local authorities in Cantabria and La Rioja adopt stringent measures to attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic, xenophobic anti-gypsy messages have marred the general response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The latest figures show that 53% of Cantabrian municipalities are now affected by the pandemic, with a total of 1,501 cases and 85 deaths in the region. The town of Santoña has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: among 11,000 inhabitants, there were 43 cases and 4 deaths registered as of the 1 April.

Following the approval of a local government petition to the Spanish Health Ministry, 21 local families were confined to their homes by judicial order on the 29 March.

Two days later, Civil Guard patrols clad in protective CBRN suits informed a further seven families that the judicial order had been extended to include their households.

A total of 70 people are now subject to the confinement order, the majority of whom are of gypsy heritage. And the increased incidence of COVID-19 infections within gypsy ethnic groups has since led to the racialisation of the pandemic.

Xenophobic audio messages circulated through Santoña, calling for the incarceration of all locals with gypsy heritage – some 6% of the population – in the nearby El Dueso prison.

The audio messages were falsely attributed to the Mayor of Santoña, Sergio Abascal, following his mention of the gypsy minority in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic on local radio.

Abascal has admitted his error in explicitly linking the COVID-19 outbreak to the gypsy community, but maintains he did so simply as this sector of the population had been most affected by the virus. He denies connection to any comments that convey “a call to the people of Santoña to incite hate,” insisting he is among “the first to say” that the audio messages constituted “an alleged hate crime.”

Abascal has also reiterated his intentions to “maintain respect, empathy and solidarity… with those who are suffering infection and with those professionals… who are working tirelessly every day to combat COVID-19.”

An unnamed individual has since taken responsibility for the audio messages, which were apparently sent “in a private conversation,” and apologised for their offensive content.

The Mayor of Santoña has now passed the case over to the authorities, “due to the public threats that I am receiving on social media and on my own profiles, attributing those audios to me.”

A comparable situation has arisen in Haro, a town in northern Spain’s La Rioja province. The town itself has registered a considerable percentage of the region’s 2,846 cases and 160 deaths.

Local residents have expressed extreme distaste following the circulation of a WhatsApp audio message that alleges “the gypsies are doing whatever they want, the Civil Guard can’t deal with them.”

One resident, of gypsy descent himself, spoke of locals’ alleged “racism” and his sense of targeted discrimination: “they think we’re all infected, it’s a disgrace.”

He noted that people have started moving away from those of gypsy heritage if they encounter them in the street or at the supermarket. One neighbour, he said, even commented to him that authorities should “throw all the gypsies out of Haro.”

An unfortunate by-product of the lockdown measures enforced in Haro is a sense of ghettoisation. Civil Guard presence has been markedly increased around particular apartment blocks that house the majority of confined families. The gypsy heritage of some has made it all too easy for certain elements of the wider population to reach misguided, xenophobic conclusions.

Developments in both Santoña and Hora demonstrate that racialisation of the pandemic extends beyond those of Asian heritage.

As misinformation ripples through social media, it is free to take on malicious, racist overtones. Attributing the spread of the virus to the gypsy minority in Spain is one of the latest of over 351 Corona-related hoaxes – in the Spanish language alone – that have circulated online since December 2019.

Tackling misinformation is clearly one cause for immediate concern in halting the spread of COVID-19. Not only is it vital that the general public has access to accurate information on prevention and treatment, but safeguarding public health also relies on the population working together, rather than pulling apart, at such a crucial time.

However, the concerns raised by the spread of xenophobic misinformation in the north of Spain do stretch beyond the immediately obvious.

Santoña’s local economy relies on the fishing and canning industry. The locality became Cantabria’s major anchovy processing centre in the late 1800s and related industry still constitutes its major commercial activity.

But the industry has now been adversely affected by the pandemic. Boats are moored up and Santoña-based canning companies Angelachu and Conservas Ana María have closed to protect workers’ health.

With the local economy likely to suffer long-term effects of the pandemic, the racialisation of the virus may live on as a hard-hit population seeks a scapegoat for increased unemployment.

In the wake of loss and grief, many will succumb to the temptations of the blame game. But, to reiterate a phrase fast becoming a pandemic sound bite, the virus does not discriminate. As we tackle this crisis, it is vital to hold onto reason rather than fall prey to xenophobic paranoia.