Virus fears are beginning to haunt Argentina’s capital’s crowded slums



May 6, 2020 GMT

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — In the crowded Villa 31 slum, the sun plays hide and seek between buildings that jut and fall against the sky like Tetris blocks.

Illegal cables carrying electricity cross the streets like cobwebs. Looking up, the view can be obscured by a cement pillar supporting one of the main thoroughfares in the Argentine capital.

Just below, Ramona Medina lives in a 3 by 3 meter (10 by 10 foot) room with seven members of her family, including her disabled 12-year-old daughter who has a severe form of epilepsy.

“I cry all night. I have panic attacks because I hate to think we might get sick,” the 43-year-old said from the doorway of a house surrounded by rusty sheet metal, cardboard and other debris. “My granddaughter is a patient at risk. If she is infected, she could die.

Villa 31 is a symbol of Argentina’s inequality. Some 45,000 people live on its 70 hectares (170 acres), between the capital’s port and a main railway line.

Until this week, the area was relatively untouched by the pandemic, which has started to spread in the more affluent neighborhoods. Only 100 cases had been confirmed at the Villa on Monday. But officials, fearing infections could spread rapidly in the crowded district, began conducting large-scale COVID-19 testing on Tuesday, and the total number of confirmed cases had risen to 198 by Wednesday.

The strictly enforced quarantine measures elsewhere in Buenos Aires seemed more haphazard here.

At the commercial heart of the district, the narrow street “Playón Oeste” was crowded with small vendor stalls selling vegetables, cereals, used clothes and, these days, masks and alcohol.

Seated behind a table offering spices and other goods was Jacinto Asmat, a 75-year-old Peruvian, who admitted he was afraid of the virus but said he had no other way to win his life – a condition he shared with many around him.

The aroma of cooked meat came from nearby restaurants, where customers sat inside, ignoring quarantine bans, and mixed with the exhaust fumes of small motorcycle trucks carrying goods. A hair salon was serving a few customers.

At dusk, young people gathered near one of the main entrances to the district, while music sounded nearby. A group of men drank beer, ignoring all orders to wear face masks and appearing unimpressed by the presence of police in body armor and carrying guns.

“We understand that the isolation cannot be the same as in the formal city,” said Ignacio Curti, who works in the social integration department of the city government of Buenos Aires. “We know that people live in a situation of greater vulnerability or with less space in their homes. It is sometimes advantageous and necessary for their families that they go out.

The government had admitted that the pandemic crackdown would be particularly harsh on the 36% of the population already considered to be living in poverty, especially informal and self-employed workers.

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Villa 31 began in the 1930s with the arrival of Italian immigrants and gradually expanded with the arrival of people from elsewhere in Argentina and neighboring countries. About half of the residents now come from Uruguay, Peru or Bolivia.

Medina said 15 of his neighbors have been confirmed to have COVID-19, but said authorities have so far done little to stop the contagion.

“They never came to spray bleach, nothing,” she said, while unsuccessfully trying to get water from a tap outside her home.

“Today we are resisting COVID-19 because of the bonds we have forged, not because of city or state government,” Andrade said. “We hope for a better future, not only for the end of the coronavirus, but for all social inequalities.”

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