BUENOS AIRES – Liliana is still recovering from dengue, but she knows that her elderly neighbors need her during this time of quarantine. Together with Leonida, emotionally wounded by the murder of her son three years ago, she is helping out in the largest slum in Buenos Aires, where the coronavirus has changed the daily routine into an even more intense than normal fight against adversity.
Villa 21-24, located next to the Matanza Riachuelo River, which for years has been highly polluted, is – like the other poor neighborhoods in the Argentine capital – going through an ongoing crisis: poverty, drug use, overcrowding, violence, lack of hygiene and precarious water and electricity supply.
Now, however, the coronavirus outbreak is another burden.
“You have to get up and keep fighting. We are with our elderly residents, in the sense that … we bring them their food,” Liliana – a Paraguayan citizen living in Argentina and a recent dengue victim, a mosquito-borne disease that each year during the hot season besets the area – told EFE.
“I’ve got a fever,” she warned.
A member of the Corriente Villera Independiente, one of the organizations with the greatest presence in vulnerable neighborhoods, she is one of the many people who work with the parish of Father Toto, as everyone calls the local priest, Lorenzo de Vedia.
When you visit the Church of the Virgin of Miracles of Caacupe, you come to know the current reality. A huge number of people are there standing in line, bags in their hands, to take food home so they can survive amid the pandemic, a worldwide problem that has forced Argentina, mired in recession for the past two years, to hike social subsidies and transfer food to public food banks and distribution sites.
“We add to the food we give to the eight dining halls we have, in addition to the others that are in the neighborhood. Here, we cook for 900 families, in other parts of the area for 500,” De Vedia told EFE.
To make it unnecessary for the elderly to leave home, volunteers from the parish and other organizations have been bringing them food and medications – such as their hypertension meds – and some churches have even transformed themselves into shelters.
“We go out knocking on doors and we ask. We already know where the elderly (who need help) are,” said Carolina, the health coordinator of the MP La Dignidad organization.
Living in Villa 21-24 alone, where there are four public health centers, there are some 70,000 people and much overcrowding, which raises the risk of infection by the coronavirus, which is already spreading through the neighborhood.
That’s why the government decided not to make it obligatory for people to remain home, although it has said that they cannot leave their neighborhoods.
“These months were very tough for me, not being able to go out, because my mind also weighs me down a lot,” said Leonida, whose 25-year-old son was shot to death by the police in 2017, although now going out and working with the parish helping the elderly has also been making her feel better.
“When the quarantine began (on March 20), you saw desperate people, but now that the government aid is a little more, … with the food card … it’s a little calmer,” Norma, the owner of a small grocery store, told EFE.
Nearby, 22-year-old Lucas is coordinating the work of several friends to cook up plates of food contributed by neighbors and businesses to distribute to needy families.
“The dining halls are full, the church is full, the church also gave us vegetables … And many people are coming. We’re trying to do this twice a week … More than 150 people come here,” he said.
In addition to the citizens’ initiatives, for more than a decade the Pilares Foundation has been providing support – sustained by donations and working with companies and the state – to about 500 families in Villa 21-24 and Villa 1-11-14, the second-largest neighborhood.
The foundation has been distributing more than 1,000 bags of food and hygiene products to local families, the materials specially geared toward children.
Religion is also one of the most visible elements in the neighborhood, where many people are from Paraguay and are devoted to the Virgin of Caacupe, the patron saint of the neighboring land-locked country.
Everyone in the area knows Father Toto, whose parish has been working in the community and to prevent young people from getting involved with drugs for a long time. “A couple of decades ago, there began to be a gradually bigger presence of the state here, but it still has to be organized and the (state) infrastructure within the neighborhoods still needs help to be organized,” he said.
“Bad things are still happening in the area: drugs, violence, misery. … But the people still have a spirit of progress,” Father Toto added.