Lectures

Tackling the pandemic: examining the role of social movements and organizations in Argentina

This article is part of the series:

Introduction

Mónica, a 44-year-old woman, wakes up every morning thinking about the challenges ahead. Today, like every other day, she will prepare soup with noodles and rice for more than140 neighbors who attend her soup kitchen in an economically marginalized neighborhood in the outskirts of the city of Resistencia in Argentina. Three years ago, when this neighborhood flooded and many neighbors lost most of their belongings, Mónica was asked by young members of the Peronist political organization “La Cámpora” to help those affected. Since then, Mónica has been working with the “kids” as she calls them, who provide groceries for her soup kitchen. The neighbors supply firewood for the 50-liter pot, in which she prepares soups or stews. In keeping with the training she received in COVID-19 protective measures, Mónica requests that neighbors leave their own food containers early in the morning, then pick them up around noon in order to avoid crowded lines. The survival of the soup kitchen depends heavily on the assistance of “La Cámpora” to whom she and the neighbors are grateful. 

Flores Solidario is a grassroots organization whose main objective is to obtain funds to carry out social work, literacy and human rights programs in Bajo Flores, a large neighborhood located in the city of Buenos Aires. The organization acts as liaison between public institutions, neighbors, and political activists, responding to the needs of the local population. Its history is grounded in the memory of the neighborhood, when,  during the 1970s, there was a strong presence of urban guerilla fighters. On May 14, 1976, a military command kidnapped Mónica Mignone, Horacio Pérez Weiss, Mónica Quinteiro, María Marta Vásquez de Lugones, Beatriz Carbonell de Pérez Weiss and María Esther Lorusso Lammle. This group of young professionals (pedagogues and psychologists, a physician and a lawyer) assisted in after-school activities in 1972 and helped the slum’s neighbors get organized as part of the Movimiento Villero Peronista[1]. This organization was inactive during the military dictatorship; however in 1983, during the transition to democracy, members were able to engage in new forms of activism around the trial of those who committed human rights violations during the dictatorship. In March 2020, against the backdrop of the pandemic, friends and relatives of those who had been forcibly disappeared, along with 35 political and social organizations, established a Crisis Committee. Together, they collect clothing donations and organize a soup kitchen twice a week for homeless people who live in the neighborhood alleys.    

Yeni is a member of the Qom indigenous group, who run one of the soup kitchens. She lives in a neighborhood called “Barrio Toba”, two kilometers from the center of the provincial capital of Resistencia. Home to many members of the Qom indigenous group (also known as Toba), Barrio Toba is characterized by poor living conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate waste management and water delivery infrastructure. When the pandemic started in the city of Resistencia, a member of the Toba community, who was hospitalized for appendicitis contracted COVID-19 during a hospital stay; as a result, the pandemic rapidly spread throughout his neighborhood. Within days, several people had died and dozens were infected. Yeni, who had coronavirus and was ill for 25 days, has five children, including a disabled daughter. Once she recovered, she continued with her soup kitchen, which also functions as a sewing workshop. The workshop began to produce masks for medical personnel of the neighborhood. The soup kitchen receives support from a social movement called MTE (Excluded Workers Movement ) and the Ministry of Social Development both provide foodstuffs. Yeni and her team make home-made fried bread and stew for dinner.

Social and political activism such as the examples mentioned above have a long and active history in Argentina, ranging from a wide diversity of organizations affiliated with the Peronist party, to Church-based (Catholic and Evangelical) groups, left-wing political parties, human rights groups, neighborhood and ethnic organizations. This wide range of social actors have an outstanding public role in society. These organizations provide a range of services, including food access, assistance with government subsidies, human rights claims, after-school programs, and demands for access to adequate housing, water and electricity.

In this article we discuss the work of these diverse groups of social movements and organizations, describing their fundamental role in attenuating the impact of the pandemic by providing assistance to economically disenfranchised neighborhoods. The focus of our research is on communities like Barrio Toba, and urban neighborhoods whose lack of infrastructure has made them more prone to health vulnerabilities and downward mobility.

Methods

We are a team of social scientists at the University of San Martin in Buenos Aires. In May 2020, we won a research grant to conduct a longitudinal study on the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown measures known in Argentina as ASPO (Mandatory Preventive and Social Isolation). The research focuses on populations with “Unmet Basic Needs” (National Census, 2010) in terms of housing, drinking water and sanitation in the metropolitan areas of Buenos Aires and the city of Resistencia. Buenos Aires is the capital city and main megapolis of Argentina, and part of the Province of Buenos Aires, which has a population of 14 million. Resistencia is the capital of Chaco Province in the northeast region of the country, and is a middle-range urban area with about 400,000 inhabitants.

These were the sites of our fieldwork between March and December 2020. When we wrote the proposal these were the areas with local circulation of SARS-CoV2. Our research is based on both qualitative and quantitative techniques; we are focusing on neighborhoods with more than 4% of Unmet Basic Needs (national census, 2010) related to COVID-19 prevention measures (respiratory and hand hygiene, physical distance). Unmet Basic Needs is a statistical measurement which includes four deprivation indicators (lack of access to drinking water, sewage, overcrowding and household level of education). The measure was developed in the 1980s by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL in Spanish). We use the first three indicators to understand how structural poverty constrains the ability of inhabitants to adopt the necessary measures for the prevention of COVID-19. We carried out research in 38 neighborhoods with the assistance of neighbors, social movements, and a wide range of organizations which include soup kitchens, churches and primary health centers. We conducted interviews and recorded data via social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Meet). Our research focused on the experiences and point of view of local actors and their everyday life under the restrictions of lockdown. We also recorded infectious diseases such as dengue, tuberculosis and measles.

Background

On March 20, 2020, the Argentine government declared a lockdown when the first cases of local transmission of COVID-19 were reported in the city of Buenos Aires. Initially, the first cases were detected in middle-class neighborhoods in the city. However on April 21, Barrio Mugica was the first low-income neighborhood to report a case of COVID-19. This enormous and diverse neighborhood has a population of over 40,000 inhabitants and is located near downtown Buenos Aires. The neighborhood’s population is made up of immigrants from other provinces in Argentina and neighboring countries, whose basic needs are unmet. The virus spread rapidly to other neighborhoods similarly characterized by lack of infrastructure such as clean tap-water, sewage, and regular access to electricity.

In most of these neighborhoods, a wide range of diverse social movements and organizations have a strong presence. Some of these groups have been around since the 1970’s, formed prior to the military coup in 1976. Once the pandemic rapidly advanced in these low-income neighborhoods, a wide range of social actors formed “Emergency  Committees” (known as Crisis Committees in some neighborhoods) in order to implement public policies directed at alleviating the consequences of lack of access to food and employment, and unmet needs. They also aimed to establish dialogue between people writing governmental policies and people carrying out their interventions. Other social organizations readjusted their usual tasks to attend the basic needs (access to food and clothes) of the population.

Soup Kitchens as everyday forms of survival

The lockdown exacerbated existing structural inequality and increased the vulnerability of a large part of the population. The mandatory physical distancing measures together with the stigmatization of those who live in impoverished neighborhoods, led to the loss or interruption of jobs for a long period, and in some cases these jobs were not recovered. While initially the lockdown was considered effective in slowing the spread of the virus, as of February 8, 2021, 49.171 people have died of COVID-19, and 1.980.347 have been infected. Poverty rates have increased during the lockdown, in March 2021, 62,9% of children and teenagers are part of a low income homes, and 10% of them must work to help their families. (https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/la-ninez-en-riesgo-el-629-es-pobre-y-uno-de-cada-diez-trabaja).

In this dire context soup kitchens, known as “ollas populares” and “Comedores” provide sustenance in times of crisis.

The history of soup kitchens can be traced to the arrival of mass immigration to Argentina at the end of the 19thcentury and beginning of the 20th, when impoverished European immigrants shared food at the tenements they inhabited in the city of Buenos Aires. Soup kitchens also emerged during workers strikes throughout the 20thcentury.  During the devastating economic crisis of the 1980’s which let to hyperinflation, and lootings, soup kitchens were organized in the public space to assist the population. Many of these soup kitchens later became “comedores populares,” enclosed dining spaces, and developed as a grass roots-based solutions to hunger, throughout the country. However, these comedores, not only constitute a space to feed people who are in need, but also provide other services such as: after school activities and support for children, workshops, assistance with access to government subsidies which require use of computers, gender and human rights information and assistance.

In neighborhoods with more precarious living conditions, and where those who provide food do not have adequate housing, only a cup of milk and bread are served to children, these are called “copeo”. In the city of Resistencia where there are numerous copeos, we talked to Tatiana, a trans woman, who told us about the hardships she has undergone while working as a sex worker, a victim of violence and abuse yet she always wanted to help others and set up a copeo in her house. With the help of a worker’s movement, she serves milk in cut out plastic bottles, fried bread or cookies for up to 70 children three times a week. Tatiana told us that there are several other copeos in her own neighborhood, “at least these children go to bed with something warm in their tummies.”

Elba is a Paraguayan immigrant who lives in Barrio Mugica, she works as a cleaning lady, and for several years she has been active in a cultural and political organization called “El Hormiguero” This Peronist based group works to improve the lives of residents of these low-income neighborhoods, by focusing on education, pre-school, and after-school programs. This organization built a teacher training program in the neighborhood, where local residents can get an elementary school teacher’s degree. With the lockdown, and its consequences on the income of the neighborhoods, El Hormiguero rapidly geared its activities to the organization of soup-kitchens in several of the neighborhoods where they conduct their activities. Elba cooks hot meals for more than 150 people who attend this dining hall three times a week, she told us that “people are going through a very hard moment, there is a lot of need, some people are undocumented, for instance from Paraguay and Bolivia, and can’t receive government subsidies, some people come to the soup kitchen and request a meal for 15 people.”

The Emerenciano Socialist Movement in the city of Resistencia, capital of Chaco Province, is an interesting case of an organization which occupied a plot of land,   produce agriculture and raise farm animals. They administer a school and health center, the government pays the salaries, while the organizations provides the personnel.  During 2020 pandemic, the Emerenciano Movement took on the follow-up and sanitary control of COVID-19, they also continued to engage in infant-mother health care and prevention.   In order to provide food for the 420 families which live in the plot, the movement maintained the school’s lunch room open when the school was closed.  

Summary Discussion

Our ethnographic research allowed us to analyze how social movements help mitigate the impact  of structural violence in the context of the lockdown measures.   On one hand, we observe soup kitchens that emerged spontaneously as a response of neighbors to the dire conditions caused by the strict measures. On the other, organizations with a long history of grassroots work that have rooted mechanisms to deploy assistance. The soup kitchen organized by Monica, is the result of specific local conditions, a women and her peers respond to the neighbors’ needs.  While, other organizations such as Flores Solidario, respond to a long history of political activism, grounded in the struggle for human rights. In all these cases, women play a fundamental role, whereby practices of care, assistance, cooking and distributing meals, are carried out mostly by them. In some of these organizations, women are effective leaders and organizers, in others, they are under the leadership of men. In all cases, social movements and organizations are dealing with the everyday challenges posed by the pandemic. While the State has deployed diverse public policies to respond to the demands of citizens, many of these were thwarted by inefficient bureaucratic practices. As Elba mentioned, bureaucracy became an obstacle for granting basic rights to immigrants, whereby they couldn’t receive subsidies. The numerous interviews we carried out with the diverse group of movements and organizations clearly reveal the role played by gender and sexual diversity, ethnicity and class in creating more inclusive responses to the emergency.

These are some of the dozens of political and social organizations that are at the forefront of solving everyday basic needs in impoverished neighborhoods. They are constituted by a diverse array of social actors that have been malleable enough to reorganize their activities to face the challenges of the lockdown.

Equity lies at the core of the struggle for human rights, people of all walks of life, have shown the capacity to respond to basic human needs with creativity and promptness. At times this problem-solving response was more effective than the delayed and mingy government interventions.


Silvia Hirsch has a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is professor and researcher at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, Argentina, and co-director of the Center for Study of Anthropology. Email: silviahirsch5@gmail.com

Andrea Mastrangelo has a PhD from the Universidad Nacional de Misiones, Argentina. She is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, the University of San Martin, and at ANLIS, the National Administration of Laboratories and Health Institutes. Email: andreaveronicamastrangelo@gmail.com


Notes

[1] This is a Peronist social movement based in the shantytowns of the country.


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