Unable to work, Argentines at the fringes turn to army for food

QUILMES, Argentina (Reuters) - In a suburb of Quilmes, south of Buenos Aires, dozens wait in line at an army field kitchen to get rations of food, their pockets emptier than normal due to a nationwide shutdown aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

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In a country where at least 35% of people live below the poverty line and many are employed informally in piecemeal work, Argentines are being hard hit by the obligatory quarantine.

Only those who work in essential sectors have permission to move freely until at least the end of March, with police controlling movement in big cities and highways. The country’s borders have been closed as cases of the virus have topped 500.

“I come here because they don’t let me go out to work on the street. All my life I have worked and driven on the streets,” said Roberto Brandán, 58, who usually does odd jobs where he can find them.

“With this problem that is happening, I can’t even go out to the corner of the road, so I come here to bring food back to my children at home.”

At the military kitchen, soldiers filled containers that people brought with them to take food home.

“The army has always supported communities,” Alejandro Liberatore, a colonel in charge of the operation, told Reuters. “This situation is changing all the time and today our help is needed, doing this activity with the people.”

For many Argentines, the lockdown simply means dealing with challenges of life confined at home, with allowance to go out only to buy essential food or medicine.

Others face the very real danger of running short of funds, with normal supplies of income cut off, however. President Alberto Fernandez has announced measures to support those hardest hit, including providing subsidies to families.

“I come here and bring food back to my children. Like everyone, it’s out of necessity,” said Fermina Velázquez, a 38-year-old housewife.

She said the food aid helped protect her savings. “At least with this I keep what little I have.”

Reporting by Miguel Lobianco; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall