Leaders of social organisations, human rights groups and intellectuals have joined the Alberto Fernández administration in expressing their rejection over the use of body bags in an anti-government march over the weekend.
Days after the event, anger at the controversial protest tactic remains. However, some opposition leaders dismissed the criticism, saying that the bigger outrage should be the government allies, officials and family members who were vaccinated for Covid-19 out of turn in the ‘VIP vaccines’ scandal.
Ten effigies in body bags, stuffed to resemble corpses, were left at the gates of the Casa Rosada during an anti-government protest in Buenos Aires last Saturday. Later, they were fixed to the gates of Government House.
Each pretend corpse bore a slogan saying that it represented the dead body of an individual who had died from Covid-19 because someone had been vaccinated out of turn, thereby taking their chance of receiving a vaccine.
Each body bag featured the name of someone alleged to have been vaccinated out of turn, including Argentina’s Ambassador to Brazil Daniel Scioli, Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, union leader Hugo Moyano and his children, former president Eduardo Duhalde and his family.
President Alberto Fernández swiftly condemned the tactic, saying it was it was not right “to be silent” about what he described as an act of “barbarism.”
“The way to demonstrate in democracy cannot be to display mortuary bags with names of political leaders in front of the Casa Rosada," said the head of state via Twitter.
A host of government officials also expressed their disgust, including Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero. "It is dangerous for our democracy that sectors of the opposition insist on deepening hate speech. Is hatred the only thing you have to offer to society?" he wrote on the same social network.
A number of intellectuals and civil society leaders also followed suit.
"We have always fought hatred and violence with love and the demand for justice. The abject scene of some corpses bagged up the floor of the [Plaza de Mayo] square is confirmation of the denial and contempt for democracy promoted by these groups," read a joint statement issued by more than a dozen human rights groups.
Anger and allegations
On one of the packages was the name of Estela de Carlotto, the president of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the renowned humanitarian organisation dedicated to the search and identification of kidnapped babies, who were stolen during the last military dictatorship (1976-1983) and given to other families.
"It hurts, but it is a pain of sadness. To think that there are Argentines who have that ruthless resentment inside them, poor them. They almost make me [feel] sorry [for them]," said the Abuelas leader, speaking in a radio interview on Sunday.
Carlotto, 90, denied allegations that she had been vaccinated against Covid-19 outside of normal protocols.
"I signed up in December and they called me to go to the hospital. I still have to have the second dose," she said.
Hardline opposition leader Patricia Bullrich, who served as security minister under Mauricio Macri and is now the leader of the ex-president’s PRO party, said she doubted the human rights leader’s claim.
"I do not give Estela de Carlotto moral authority," she said. "Even though she is 90 years old, how many Argentines are there that are 90 years old? Why was she vaccinated? Didn't she think that maybe that shot was for someone else and that she had to queue like anyone else?"
Several opposition leaders also spoke out in response to the president’s condemnation. Senator Martín Lousteau, who attended the rally, agreed that it was “a despicable form of protest," while calling for the “records of all those vaccinated in the country to be made public."
Outspoken national deputy Fernando Iglesias responded more forcefully to the president, alleging that “stealing vaccines from older people and sending a union gang to beat them” was the true “barbarism.”
“Physical violence and state massacres are of a much higher degree. Stop victimising yourself, psychopaths," he raged.
Sandra Pitta, a CONICET researcher and defender of the Macri administration who has gained traction on social networks, even mocked the government for being “scandalised by some bags.”
The VIP vaccination scandal broke just over 10 days ago, when journalist Horacio Verbitsky revealed during an interview with a local radio station that he had been given a jab at the offices of the Health Ministry without going through the proper channels, benefitting thanks in part to his friendship with the then-health minister Gines González García.
Fernández asked González García to step down and the minister subsequently resigned. In a bid to tamper down the scandal, the government then released a list of around 70 people who had been vaccinated out of turn, justifying the majority of them as "strategic personnel for the state." Some on the list, however – including family members, government supporters and mid-level officials – were without just cause.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters, including senior leaders from the opposition coalition Juntos por el Cambio, joined demonstrators outside the Casa Rosada for a rally replicated in several cities across the country, denouncing the 'VIP vaccines’ and calling for wider resignations.
The body bags were brought to the rally by a group known as Jóvenes Republicanos (“Young Republicans''). They said in a statement issued after the event that the packages "clearly represent the Argentines who died due to the [government’s] irresponsible handling of the pandemic," rebutting allegations that the corpses were effigies of current political leaders.
The images quickly circulated on news channels, websites and social media networks, where they both attracted scorn and support. Some users accused the government of hypocrisy, highlighting that female demonstrators had dressed themselves in see-through body bags at an anti-gender violence rally outside Congress recently to less outrage.
"This is so sinister that I have no qualifiers. It recalls the murderous dictatorship and are marked with first and last names. No matter how serious the crimes, our Constitution indicates inviolable rights," tweeted philosopher Diana Maffía, the director of the Observatorio de Género en la Justicia del Consejo de la Magistratura de Buenos Aires.
The row doesn't show any sign of stopping. According to reports in the local press on Tuesday, a number of opposition leaders who attended the rally – Bullrich, Iglesias, national deputies Waldo Wolff and Francisco Sánchez and two members of the Jovenes Republicanos group (Ulises Chaparro and Inés Liendo) – have been denounced before the courts by individuals who accuse them of “inciting violence.”