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03 Apr

The debate about the coronavirus became polarized between the wealthy and the poor

Por Ariel Riera and Celeste Gómez Wagner

Updated 14 de April, 2020 at 10:02 am

If you only have a few seconds, read these lines:

  • The coronavirus came into Argentina through people who had traveled to one of the countries where the contamination was underway, especially Europe.
  • The preventive and mandatory social isolation decree established that people must stay in their homes, but the housing reality is not the same for everyone.
  • The more inequality a country has, the more the social and economic repercussions intensify.

The COVID-19 disease began in Wuhan, China, in the end of 2019, and spread to other parts of the world from there. At first it spread throughout that region, with cases in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, and then to the United States and European countries, such as Spain, France and Italy. On February 2, the first death outside of China was reported: a 44-year-old male who lived in the Philippines.

In Argentina, the propagation of the virus started with those who had traveled to one of the countries were the disease had already been detected. Therefore, in the beginning, the official parties emphasized that those were “imported cases”. In fact, the first case, which was confirmed on March 3, was detected in a 43-year-old male who had arrived in Buenos Aires coming from Milan, Italy. He was placed in isolation at the clinic Suizo Argentina and later transfered to the Sanatorio Agote (also owned by Swiss Medical).

The distances and costs involved in international travel mean that only a small part of the Argentinian population have the necessary resources to travel abroad. According to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, 1.2 million Argentinians traveled abroad in January 2020, which represents 2.6% of the population. Therefore, the coronavirus started being associated with the upper classes, in contrast to the cases of dengue fever in the poorer regions of the country.

This type of class interpretation regarding the coronavirus happened in other countries in the region, such as Brazil, where one of the first deaths was a house servant whose employee had traveled abroad and came down with the disease.

The debate about this topic also happened on the social networks. For instance, Marcelo Sain, Minister of Security at the Santa Fe Province, used his Twitter account to say: “Not only do we bring these rich people in planes, but also we use our test kits on them”. (…) We have only a few kits and use them for the upper class”. In the replies, some users criticized the fact that many of these travelers were “Kirchneristas” (see here and here), fueling the political polarization around the class discussion.

Using the monitoring tool Trendsmap, which allows us to measure interactions on Twitter about certain topics, we detected that, from the 2,411,300 tweets with words related to the pandemic shared in Argentina from March 3 (when the first case became known) until today, 30% included the words for the “poor” (30%) and 17% for the “rich” (17%).

Many interactions showed a polarization between social classes regarding the coronavirus. For instance, the two most replied messages show two extremes of the debate: one of them criticized “a rich person who went on holiday to Europe, traveling first class during the disease, [and] came back sick”. The other message, on the other hand, said: “The ‘rich people’ you insult are the ones paying the taxes which maintain your social security” (sic).

The divided opinions about the pandemic are intensified by the uneven effect of the measures taken during quarantine. According to data about the second semester of 2019 published this week by the INDEC, poverty increased to 35.5% and affects around 16.4 million people. Therefore, social isolation is not the same for everyone. “It’s not the same quarantine for the middle class, who stays at home, and the social isolation in the poor regions”, admitted Daniel Arroyo, the Minister of Social Development of Spain, in an interview for the La Vanguardia.

According to INDEC’s latest report on “living conditions indicators”, 4.7% of people live in critical overcrowding conditions (more than 3 people per room), and according to data from the National Register of Low Income Neighborhoods of the National Government (2018), more than 4 million people live in the more than 4 thousand low income neighborhoods located throughout the country.

It is not only a matter of housing. The Coordination against Institutional Police Repression (Correpi) emphasized that “the security forces act differently in lower income neighborhoods and towns, and they don’t treat people and workers the same way as those living in wealthy regions” (sic). The Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) warned that the declaration of the state of emergency could be interpreted by the security forces “as a license to practice abuse”, and indicated cases of humiliation and unreasonable use of rubber bullets.

In addition to these inequalities, there are also work conditions. In Argentina, according to the latest data by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (Indec), in the third semester of 2019, the “self-employed” (that is, those who do not have a job with a relationship of dependency) represented 11.7% of the active population.

This scenario is not exclusive to Argentina. According to the UN, since 55% of the world population have no access to social security, the consequences of the coronavirus will have an impact not only on health, but also on education, on human rights and even on food security. “The more unequal a country is, the more the vulnerable groups will suffer the weight of the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and they will have fewer resources to fight it”, warned Alicia Barcena, a biologist and the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

* The Digital Democracy Room is a project of FGV DAPP in Brazil in partnership with Chequeado, Linterna Verde and Ojo Público. It’s goal is to monitor and analyze the digital conversations regarding the electoral context.

The analysis is available the website of Chequeado here.