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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-03-2020 08:47

This is much more than just a health pandemic

We are facing not only a health epidemic but a new wave of structural poverty which especially hits the daily lives of the most vulnerable.

To the health risks posed by the advance of the novel Covid-19 coronavirus must be added the current sanitary emergency, which has halted a dual economic system. It is a system that is generally in tatters, but it is even more unequal today, due to the debt crisis and the stagflation of the last two years. All of which paralyses investment, trade and job creation, deepening the correlation between poverty and the underground economy.

In this context, the informal economy impoverishes yet further, making the poor poorer. This sanitary emergency might oblige us to place groundless political rifts on hold, and we may learn new ways of doing politics, but what does not seem to be sufficiently an issue of public debate is the aggravation of the social rift in this context.

Not just because (along with violence) dengue, influenza and multiple other infections strike especially hard for poverty – without the due preventive attention from the public health system – and continue to be the main avoidable causes of death among the poor, but because the sanitary emergency (like so many other State measures originating in and aimed at the formal economy) hits the informal economy and workers harder. That huge layer of society (at least 30 percent of households and 35 percent of the workforce) does not earn a regular wage, nor extraordinary income, nor has a reserve fund on which to fall back on given the lack of work generated by the sanitary emergency.

I refer to those providing personal services of every kind – maintenance or repair, pedlars, domestic service, those taking care of the elderly and disabled without fixed employment, bricklayers, artisans, those running stalls at fairs, etc. Due to the quarantine, around 400,000 families will be receiving a sum for food assistance in their AUH family benefit accounts. These have been the targets of the government’s latest economic measures: the extra AUH payment, the bonus for those collecting the minimum pension and the IFE emergency family relief payment as well as the AlimentAR food stamp card. All of these are important palliative measures for reducing the effects of an accumulation of social crises – but they are nothing which changes the present or future of these sectors.

The social situation would doubtless be worse without these transfers. The privations affecting at least a third of the population are nothing new. In this case structural defects should be added to the regressive sanitary and economic effects generated by the pandemic – overcrowding, residential degradation, the lack of public sanitary services (water, sewage, etc.), the persistent malnutrition, insufficient education and health services, the fragility of social capital, the lack of valuable information, the greater risk of suffering anxiety and stress, the raw social violence.

We are thus facing not only a health epidemic but a new wave of structural poverty which especially hits the daily lives of the most vulnerable.

In this context, far from creating a more egalitarian society thanks to a virus which (whatever its current extent) does not distinguish between social origins, we must warn that this situation is broadening material, social and symbolic inequalities. Hence the need to coordinate active policies for the emergency with the political challenges growing for the day after all this is over. We need a horizon of redistributive socio-economic agreements – in the fields of taxation, society and production alike – for the medium and long term.

Argentine society urgently needs something more than stabilising the economy, paying its debts and emerging from the sanitary crisis to take a qualitative leap towards policies of development, welfare and equity.

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Agustín Salvia

Agustín Salvia

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