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ARGENTINA | 16-05-2020 09:27

Pandemic intensifies isolation of Huarpe children in Mendoza

The Huarpe, numbering little over 1,000 and scattered across 11 communities, live in a remote part of Mendoza Province. For them, social distancing – the only known preventive weapon against coronavirus – is the almost the norm.

The compulsory nationwide quarantine maintained by Argentina since March 20 has left the Huarpe community without schooling. The children of the indigenous group in northern Mendoza Province, normally travel many kilometres to attend class and receive food assistance.

The Huarpe families, numbering little over 1,000 and scattered across 11 communities, live in precarious dwellings, surviving by rearing goats in remote rural areas. Here social distancing, the only known preventive weapon against coronavirus, is practised naturally. 

To visit a neighbour it’s necessary to walk for miles along dusty rural roads. Many families send their children to boarding schools where they spend a few weeks every month. Others daily attend rural educational establishments where they also lunch. Either way, there’s a long way to travel.

Since the start of the national quarantine the schools have been closed. Distance learning, the system being implemented for children at national level is out of reach for these communities, known as the "desert inhabitants."

Here the Internet is almost as non-existent as the rainfall which barely moistens a few days of the year in this arid, saline and sandy soil with extreme temperatures, located 200 kilometres north of the provincial capital and 1,100 kilometres to the west of Buenos Aires.

In Argentina, 35 percent of its 44 million inhabitants are living below the poverty line, although this does not translate mathematically for the Huarpes: here all the kids suffer the same fate. 

Isolated

Gonzalo Lencinas settles into his chair with solemnity. He plans to do his homework on a rickety table in the earth patio of his half-built home. All around is the flat desert, as if in a postcard. The family home is the only building around for several kilometres.

At the age of 10 he misses his school, his teacher and the football breaks. The teachers are the only nexus with the system of education. They regularly travel around 400 kilometres to bring their pupils exercise books with homework, which the parents must pick up once a week or fortnight, as with the bags with cooking oil, pasta, rice and milk. The meeting-point is sometimes school, sometimes by the roadside. 

"We are very far from the communication systems and that makes it impossible for my children and the children of other neighbours who also lack any possible access to Internet, that communication which you in the city have easily,” Jorge Lencinas, 40, tells AFP. 

Raquel Cabrera has seven children, the youngest two years old and the eldest Martín, an adolescent of 16 who spends hours perched on the roof of the family dwelling hoping to capture a signal for his mobile telephone.

"We help as much as we can. There’s homework which the children don’t understand and which they cannot do without the Internet. And which I don’t understand either," she says, worried.

The gap

The national Education Ministry has ruled the elimination of school marks in the framework of the emergency. Some experts have expressed concern about the growth of the educational gap due to unequal access to the Internet.

For Marta Pérez, headmistress of the nearest school, the shortfalls of the Huarpes go beyond connectivity.

"They do not even have the possibility of searching for the meaning of some words because they have no dictionaries," she cites as an example. "They live with much economic deprivation, water is scarce and what they have contains arsenic.”

In El Retamo, the restrictions have delivered an unexpected problem for the community. The bus passes once a week but Mendoza citizens can only leave their houses on certain days of the week according to their document numbers, a scheme that’s often incompatible with irregular transport services.

"The Huarpe communities have also been hit by the same situation as the rest of the world," affirms Darío Jufré, as he picks up the homework for his kids. "It has been a very difficult situation because it has made us see how far away we are from the systems of communication."

 

by Sonia Avalos & Andrés Larrovere

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