Valentín Martínez rubs his hands with alcohol while queuing up with other kids for the guiso. The stew has been prepared by several women protected by face-masks and latex gloves. They are all residents of a low-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires who have organised their self-defence against the novel coronavirus, in view of the limited state presence where they live.
Most of the kids at the “La hora feliz” community canteen in the municipality of Lanús, lying to the south of Buenos Aires City, observe the safety distance recommended by Javier Gómez, a local electrician entrusted with giving them alcohol-based hand gel.
“We’re afraid of coronavirus because many of these kids are underfed and lacking protein... we must look after them,” said Leonor Esquivel, who is in charge of the canteen situated in the densely populated neighbourhood of El Ceibo, while she handed out food.
One of her colleagues in charge of taking out the lentil stew as it simmers in an enormous casserole supported by a wheelbarrow in which several logs burn, was also wearing gloves and face-mask.
Since the compulsory total quarantine began, the children attending the canteen must withdraw their food trays to take them home because they can no longer sit together at the table in the small and ramshackle building.
The fear of contagion in the impoverished barrios on the outskirts of the capital has obliged inhabitants to organise themselves. Solidarity has only multiplied, with many children no longer assured the daily meal they are normally given at school, because of the suspension of classes.
In Argentina over 35 percent of the population and over half the children are poverty-stricken, according to the latest official figures.
Esquivel celebrated the arrival at the canteen of a bag containing 500 face-masks made and donated by five women in another low-income Lanús neighbourhood. This package is worth its weight in gold since these protective elements are impossible to obtain in the pharmacies. Ditto for latex gloves and alcohol-based hand gel.
Johanna Maciel is one of the women who has been weaving the face-masks for the last 10 days on a loom at a textiles co-operative run by the Barrios de Pie social movement at a warehouse.
“It’s so quick, I can make one in less than a minute. I already knew how to knit,” she says, speaking at her small home in Villa Jardín, one of the most densely populated low-income neighbourhoods in the capital’s southern suburbs.
Maciel, her mother and other relatives are sewing the face-masks separately to avoid physical contact. That’s very difficult in a neighbourhood crisscrossed by narrow corridors with dwellings inhabited by 10 or more people. Once the face-masks are finished, they are sprayed with diluted alcohol.
Apart from the “La hora feliz” canteen, these disposable masks are destined to a further 20 soup kitchens scattered around Lanús.
“They are women who work non-stop, silent heroines,” says Barrios de Pie activist Pablo Arburua.
The social organisations have pointed out the impossibility of closing down the canteens despite the mandatory quarantine in place.
“It never crossed our minds to suspend the canteens ... people would just go somewhere else looking for food – this is not a wage-earning society like in Europe,” explained Arburua.