Argentine govt seeks to counter effects of hunger in Tucuman Province

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu Nov 28 11:18:07 MST 2002


(This has been a big fature of the
nightly news here on Cuban TV.)
================================

ARGENTINA - Gov't Launches Overdue Attack on Hunger
Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 25

(IPS) - The Argentine government launched an aggressive
door-to- door anti-hunger campaign Monday in the
northwestern province of Tucuman to combat pockets of
acute malnutrition that have received extensive media
coverage in the past two weeks.

But doctors and social organisations underline that
people in the province have been suffering extreme
poverty for many years.

''Operation Rescue'', which will involve the deployment
of 1,500 physicians, nurses, social workers, volunteers
and members of the military, mobile hospital units and
kitchens, food supplies, and ambulances and
helicopters, got under way in Tucuman, which has become
the most visible epicentre of Argentina's social
collapse, a result of the worst economic crisis in the
country's history.

But poverty is affecting the entire country, not just
provinces located far from Buenos Aires, say experts
and social activists, who hold the past few governments
and much of the political leadership responsible for
the problem.

Although Argentina, one of the world's top exporters of
agricultural commodities, produces enough food to meet
the needs of its 37 million people twice over, the
statistics indicate that 52 percent of the population
is poor and 20 percent is living in the most abject
poverty.

Health Ministry statistics show that 25 of every 1,000
children die yearly of malnutrition- related problems
in Tucuman -- nine times the national average in this
once-rich Southern Cone nation.

A full 80 percent of children under the age of 14
living in and around the capital of the province of
Tucuman are poor.

But cold statistics do not move people like live images
do, Health Minister Ginés Gonzalez García admitted
Monday, referring to the spate of televised news
reports that have come out of the region in the past 10
days.

The despondent look in the eyes of children with
rickets, the tragic stories told by doctors and
families, and the deaths by starvation of real children
with real names and faces in Tucuman have deeply shaken
Argentine society.

One case that caused a particular impact was that of
10-year-old María Rosa Gómez, who weighed just nine kgs
when she died. Two of her four siblings, all of whom
were younger than herself, were hospitalised with acute
malnutrition.

The Gómez family is a typical case in which poverty has
been passed down generation after generation, even
causing neurological damage in newborns, as in the case
of three of the family's five children, the director of
the Niño Jesús Pediatric Hospital in Tucuman, Lorenzo
Marcos, told IPS.

María Rosa's mother, Mariana Gómez, is just 19 years
old. When IPS called the hospital in Tucuman from
Buenos Aires and asked to talk to her, the young woman
told Dr. Marcos to explain that she did not know how to
talk on the telephone.

Marcos said Gómez has never gone to school, and that
she cannot even distinguish colours by their name.

In response to the extreme cases of hunger and neglect,
the government of Eduardo Duhalde has begun to create a
social safety net in Tucuman, to detect families living
in extreme poverty, and tailor social assistance to the
specific needs of the local population.

But physicians in the local hospitals and social
organisations working in the area say marginalisation
and poverty are nothing new there, and that things have
merely taken a turn for the worse, with a larger number
of undernourished children and a more severe degree of
starvation.

Four non-governmental organisations filed a lawsuit
against the governor of Tucuman, Angel Miranda, last
week, and demanded that he resign.

When the media reports on the deaths of local children
began to be aired around the country and the region,
Miranda, who belongs to the ruling Justicialista
(Peronist) Party, was in a wealthy suburb of Buenos
Aires buying a motorboat for his family.

The prosecutor in charge of investigating ''crimes
against social welfare,'' Guillermo Marijuán, was sent
to Tucuman to verify reports that local officials were
extorting recipients of unemployment benefits, who in
exchange for the funds were forced to give the
officials part of the money or sexual favors.

Marijuán also detected a number of cases in which
national social assistance funds that were to go to
unemployed heads of households were diverted to non-
existent social organisations and distributed by local
officials among their political clientele.

In a conversation with IPS, Matían Laín, a pediatrician
who travelled to the province as a volunteer with the
Fundación Alma (Soul Foundation), which visits the
country's poorest villages and towns in a ''pediatric
train'', said the people of Tucuman are living in a
state of utter abandonment.

The province's primary health centres are without
supplies or doctors, there is no dental service, the
disinfectant needed to clean homes of the vinchuca bug,
the transmitter of the deadly Chagas disease, is not
distributed, and there are children as well as adults
with ''moderate to severe'' malnutrition, said Laín.

''When the train arrives, we announce it over the
radio,'' he said, still visibly moved by his trip to
the province earlier this year. ''The first day, people
from the town come, who are in the best condition.

''But on the second day parents carrying their children
start to file in after walking or riding on horseback
for hours. They are the ones who are in the worst
condition.

''The state of abandonment of these people is so great
that there is not even a glimmer of hope left,'' said
Laín.

But the public hospitals, to which the most severe
cases are to be referred, are no paradise for the ill,
he added.

Angel González, the head of pediatrics at the Niño
Jesús Pediatric Hospital, has worked there since his
days as an intern. ''Since then, in 1966, we have seen
malnourished children as a consequence of the closing
of 11 sugar mills in the province,'' he said Monday.

González said the new social safety net being designed
by the Duhalde administration should have been created
before, not after, the main sources of employment in
the area shut down.

The pediatric service found that 40 percent of the
children admitted to the hospital are severely
malnourished and have parasites and other poverty-
related ailments, he explained.

''Malnutrition has been a permanent fixture in the
province since those years, with ups and downs, and
already affected the grandparents of today's
malnourished children,'' said González.

But ''it is not only an illness, a problem of the
body,'' he added. ''We're talking about a total loss of
human dignity here.''

Between 800 and 1,000 people visit the Niño Jesús
Pediatric Hospital every day, but there are many more
people in the province who are unable to even reach the
hospital due to a total lack of money and other
resources.

The building is packed, with 250 patients for 220 beds.
Thirty children laying on sofas, or held in their
parents' arms, are fed exclusively by IV drip.

Despite the shortcomings, González is sceptical
regarding the arrival of a delegation sent by the
national government to help combat the crisis.

''The government brings in doctors and nurses, the army
brings its field hospitals, but we have hospitals here
that have been closed down, and unemployed staff that
could work,'' he pointed out.

The official delegation is headed by Duhalde's wife,
first lady Hilda González. ''When the señora leaves,
will the malnourished kids have clean water to drink?
Will they have sewer services, decent housing? Will
they be able to stop eating in the dumps? Because if
that isn't so, all that will have been done is
(political) proselytism.''

In his view, many of the province's problems are the
result of political corruption and neglect.

''There is hunger and a total lack of dignity here, and
votes are bought with bags of food. Everything is worth
a bag of food: political proselytism, attendance at
political rallies, a vote for every new election,''
said González.




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