Virus fears begin to haunt crowded slum in Argentine capital

AP International News

Men wearing face masks ride a motorcycle that hauls a trailer in the “Villa 31” neighborhood during a government-ordered lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, May 5, 2020. According to official data, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 disease in this city’s slum have increased in the past week, putting authorities on high alert. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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

Illegal cables carry electricity cross the streets like spiderwebs. Looking upward, the view can be obscured by a pillar of cement holding up one of the Argentine capital’s main thoroughfares.

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

“I cry all night. I have panic attacks because I’m horrified to think that we could get sick,” the 43-year-old woman said from the door of a home surrounded by rusting sheets of roofing, cardboard boxes and other debris. “My little girl is a patient at risk. If she gets infected, she could die.”

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

Until this week, the area had been relatively spared by the pandemic, which began to spread in wealthier districts. Only 100 cases had been confirmed in the Villa by Monday. But officials, worried that infections may quickly rip through the crowded district, began to do widespread COVID-19 testing on Tuesday, and the total of confirmed cases had jumped to 198 by Wednesday.

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

In the commercial heart of the district, the “Playón Oeste” a narrow street, was crowded with small stands of vendors offering vegetables, cereals, used clothes and, these days, face masks and alcohol.

Sitting behind a table offering spices and other products was Jacinto Asmat, a 75-year-old Peruvian, who acknowledged he was afraid of the virus, but said he had no other way to make a living — a condition he shared with many around him.

The aroma of cooked meat drifted from nearby restaurants, where customers sat indoors, ignoring quarantine prohibitions, and it mixed with the exhaust of little motorcycle-trucks carrying merchandise. A hair salon was serving a couple of customers.

At dusk, youths gathered close to one of the neighborhood’s main entrances, while music pounded nearby. A group of men drank beer, all ignoring orders to wear face masks and seeming unimpressed by the presence of police in bulletproof vests and carrying guns.

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

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

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

Medina said that 15 of her neighbors have been confirmed to have COVID-19, but said officials until now had done little to stop the contagion.

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

“Today we’re resisting COVID-19 due to the ties we’ve formed, not thanks to the government of the city or state,” Andrade said. “We hope that the future will be better, not only for the end of the coronavirus, but for all the social inequality.”

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