May 27, 2020

ARGENTINA: Covid-19, inequality, and class politics

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

Starting on 25 May and now with around 200 confirmed Covid-19 cases in a population of perhaps 4,000, Villa Azul – a low-income neighborhood in the Buenos Aires conurbation hit by Covid-19 – has been completely sealed off for a fortnight. Police are guarding the perimeter, while health personnel carry out tests, and local government officials and volunteers deliver food and hygiene products to residents. The total isolation of the Villa Azul area highlights not just the challenge of containing the spread of the virus, but it also offers a glimpse at a possible post-pandemic politics.

The government has been alert to the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak in precarious, low-income settlements (villas) since the outset of the pandemic. Overcrowded conditions and the lack of basic infrastructure make the villasacutely vulnerable to Covid-19. There are around 1,800 villas of varying sizes in the sprawling conurbano area around the capital. In the case of Villa Azul, authorities have taken drastic steps primarily to prevent the outbreak spreading to the neighboring – and much more populous – Villa Itati area.

However, Villa Azul has highlighted divisions within politically influential activist sectors allied to the government. Most notably, Daniel Menendez – a sub-secretary at the Social Development Ministry but who is also closely associated with the Barrios de Pie social movement – has criticized the policy. Menendez is clearly uncomfortable with the authoritarian overtones of the government’s approach. Note too that the Supreme Court judge Ricardo Lorenzetti this week reiterated his warnings about endless lockdowns and the concentration of power amid the crisis.

Menendez also says the Villa Azul policy is tantamount to the ghettoization of the poor. The Buenos Aires provincial governor Axel Kicillof has responded by saying that middle-class gated communities or high-rise residential developments could face similar measures in the event of a specific outbreak – overlooking the fact that these tend to be far less densely inhabited than the villas and therefore less likely to be hit by a quickly-spreading outbreak.

The growing prominence of social class in the political debate is unlikely to be transitory. In the immediate term, a proposal for a new wealth tax should be unveiled soon. Beyond that, there are many within government who see the crisis as an opportunity to reshape the state and its priorities – and ensure Peronist hegemony. President Alberto Fernandez has already said as much, arguing that the pandemic has helped expose what an “unfair country” Argentina is.

The problem for Peronists of all stripes is that they have mostly governed the country since the return to democracy, and so they must accept their share of responsibility for the villas and the deprivation they represent. Given how politically malleable Peronism has always been, this is unlikely to be a serious handicap to the movement presenting itself as a solution, not a problem.

More importantly, what the recipe for addressing inequalities might be remains unclear but it is not inconceivable that it involves a strong state providing charitable relief to marginal sectors, not just during the current outbreak, but – given the long-lasting economic shock – for a considerable time after. That this represents an opportunity for political proselytization to ensure that Peronism does not lose its grip on the conurbano and Buenos Aires province again is a very useful by-product.

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