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Covid-19: the problem is the money

Buenos Aires: virus emergency brings financial uncertainty to all

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‘I’m not afraid of this virus’, said Idrissa. ‘For me, the problem is the money. There is no money coming in.’ He was sitting on an upturned Quilmes beer crate, leaning his back against a parked car. Few people walked by, nobody seemed to pay attention to the neatly arranged sunglasses on their portable stand that leaned against the wall in front of us and blinked in the sunlight.

It was unusually calm here, at Idrissa’s usual spot where he works as a street vendor, two blocks away from Constitución train station. Constitución is where all travelers from the southern parts of Buenos Aires province arrive in the city. From here, they take buses or the metro to reach their workplaces. Usually by late afternoon the neighbourhood is crowded with people, seemingly endless queues form at the many bus stops and people stream in and out of the train station. Today, there were notably fewer people. Due to the spread of Covid-19, the Argentine government has asked people to stay at home, and many seem to have followed this advice.

Streets in the Constitución area of Buenos Aires almost empty. Image: the author

For my PhD in Social Anthropology, I am carrying out research with street vendors and stall-holders in popular marketplaces and shopping centers, so-called ferias, in Buenos Aires. Many, but not all of them are migrants from other Latin American and African countries. Their work as shop tenants or vendors in ferias or in the capital’s streets is invested with hope for upward social mobility and building a future for themselves. And often they are not just keeping themselves but also sending remittances to family members abroad.

The financial stability of the people I interviewed can vary significantly – some have established themselves and expanded their business over the years; others have been less successful. However, many lack a ‘regular’ safety net in the sense of legal contracts for work and unemployment or health insurance. They may rely on other safety nets based on family, neighborhood, religious and migration networks. But they depend very much on their daily income, and that, in turn, depends on the presence of customers.

‘This country is doing badly’. Idrissa shook his head. He didn’t just mean the possible increase in Coronavirus-infections threatening Argentina. He was also talking about the prolonged economic decline that has badly affected his work as a street vendor, his plans to sustain his family and to return, one day, to Senegal, his country of origin.

During the last few years, many of my interviewees have felt the effects of the economic crisis in their daily lives – courtesy of a rate of inflation which reached 53.8% in 2019, steadily rising living costs and, not least, increases in shop rents and commodity prices. At the same time, their sales have steadily decreased. Like themselves, their customers lack purchasing power. Now, the Coronavirus emergency measures appear to have aggravated a situation that Idrissa had suffered from and complained of in our conversations for quite some time.

‘Let’s put Argentina on hold’

In comparison to European or Asian countries, Argentina has counted few diagnosed COVID-19 cases so far – 128 cases as of 19 March, according to daily statistics from the government, although the number is rising by the day. However, in view of the developments in Europe from where the first COVID-19 infection was ‘imported’ to Argentina, the national government, as well as the provincial governments seem determined to take drastic measures as early as possible. By a presidential emergency decree (DNU), flights from and to Europe and other regions rated as ‘high risk’ have been suspended. People who arrived in Argentina from these regions are obliged to remain in quarantine for two weeks. Violation of the quarantine is sanctioned with a prison sentence or deportation, police units have been mobilized to enforce obedience, and a special hotline has been installed for people to denounce anyone they suspect of breaking their quarantine.

In a speech on 15 March, president Alberto Fernández made the much-quoted announcement: ‘Let’s put Argentina on hold for 10 days and stay at home’. The same day, he declared the closure of national borders and schools until 31 March. in the city and province of Buenos Aires, the region with the highest population density in the country, theatres, nightclubs, companies and many institutions closed their doors. Furthermore, the city government decided to prohibit access to public squares, at least those surrounded by railings, and limited the use of public transport such as buses, metros and trains. Car parking has been made free of charge in the city center to encourage people to use their cars instead of overcrowded public transport facilities. Shops only let in a limited number of customers at a time to prevent contagion.

“The line starts at the left”. Shops in Buenos Aires such as this Pharmacity only let in 5 customers at a time. Photo by the author

On the ground, these emergency measures have ambivalent effects. Both the compulsory restriction of people’s mobility and non-compulsory appeals to people to stay at home seem have had some effect in the capital. Buenos Aires’ streets are emptier than usual. However, the measures also exacerbate socio-economic inequalities and the effects of the economic decline that the country has lately experienced.

In 2019, INDEC found 32% of the total population to be poor, an increase of 6.3% on the previous year. According to statistics published by the Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA) in March 2019, the percentage of urban households suffering from food insecurity has increased from 6.2% in 2017 to 7.9% in 2018.

In Buenos Aires city and province, schools have been closed for teaching to prevent COVID-19 infection, but many school canteens remain open. Those children who depend on school meals for nutrition continue to attend school.

Workers who have a car to go to work may profit from free parking in the city center and will not be affected by the restrictions on public transport – but what are the options for those who do not have an own car and must rely on the public transport to access their place of work?

Many companies may enable people to work from home – the numbers of notebook computers sold by Frávega increased by 60% in the first week of March, and by another 80% in the following week as companies and individuals took measures to prepare for home working. Others might take holidays. But what about the huge proportion of the population who work, as many here say, ‘del día a día’, i.e. on a daily pay basis, often without a working contract, and for whom each day without work means a severe cut in their incomes?

Recently elected Peronist president Alberto Fernandez promised to shift from the neoliberal market-oriented focus of the previous government to one that focuses on improving the situation of the poor. Now, his government faces a situation that challenges the national economy even more, and at the same time requires measures to cushion those who are already experiencing hardship.

So far, the government has announced a bonus for those perceived as particularly vulnerable – for instance, elderly people who receive the minimum pension, and recipients of the universal child allowance (AUH). Not everyone qualifies for state assistance, though. Enriqueta, a woman from Venezuela who succeeded in bringing her daughters, grandson and husband to Argentina over the last year and a half, sent me a message to say that her eldest daughter, who, like herself, had found employment as a vendor in a market shop, has been sent home. Her boss closed the shop for an indefinite period because she had not sold a single thing since the beginning of the week. For the moment, the family depends entirely on the daily pay that Enriqueta and her eldest daughter receive. Her recently arrived husband has not yet found a job and her younger daughter has a small child to care for. None of the family members fulfills the criteria for any of the assistance programs proposed by the Argentine state and the Buenos Aires city government – for most claimants, a minimum residency of two or more years in the country is necessary.

Recommendations to avoid contagion posted at the entrance of a popular shopping center. Photo by the author.

Nobody knows tomorrow

‘I get frightened’, said Luz, a shop tenant with two shops in a popular shopping center in Constitución. As we talked, it was already after 6pm and she had only sold a single item all day. The shopping center was nearly empty, from time to time someone passed by, asked for a price and walked away again. ‘I get frightened because I am used to my business breaking even’, said Luz. ‘I don’t want to dip into my savings to cover the costs. I don’t want to take my money, my savings, just to stay afloat.’

Between my last period of fieldwork in 2018 and my return to Buenos Aires in 2020, several shop tenants whom I have known in Constitución have closed down. Some started to work as street vendors. Some have become highly indebted because of the many loans they had taken out from private moneylenders or banks to maintain their shops. For Luz, this is a worst-case scenario. She avoids borrowing money, also because the future has become so unforeseeable.

Coronavirus, in Luz’s view, has just made the uncertainty worse. ‘Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Nobody thought that a Coronavirus would come.’ For Luz the only certainty is that people will stay in debt, will have to keep paying, and in times of high inflation, this means paying more every time the bill arrives. This, for Luz, also makes it difficult to comply with the government’s appeal to the people to remain at home. ‘Even if there is [the] Coronavirus, we still have to pay the same gas bills, the same electricity bills. Nobody can tell us to survive for 20 or 30 days without paying any of our debts. The debts, yes, the debts… the bills keep coming. Let’s not fool ourselves.’ In the end, for Luz, as for Idrissa and Enriqueta, it all comes back to the central problem: the money, or rather, the lack of it.


Franziska Reiffen is a social anthropologist from Mainz University (Germany) and currently conducting fieldwork on migration and, more generally, life in precarity in Buenos Aires, Argentina – at least as far as possible in times of Coronavirus-emergency-measures.

All names of persons interviewed have been changed

Main image: a street vendor in Buenos Aires. Photo: Buenos Aires city government.

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