The first thing Fernando Gaitan did when he saw the note posted inside the elevator of his building was cry. Days later, when he received another one on his door, he felt a stabbing pain.
“You’re going to infect us all,” said the initial anonymous letter directed at doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers on the front line of coronavirus pandemic. “Go away.”
The second note told Gaitan, a pharmacist in the Argentine capital, that if anyone in the building gets sick, “it will be the last thing you do in your life”.
“I cried, because we’re obviously living a very tense situation and I’m a human being like everyone else,” said Gaitan. “I honestly couldn’t believe it. Because I’m heading out to work and exposing myself.”
For weeks, Argentines have taken to their balconies every night to applaud and cheer on healthcare workers who are putting themselves in the line of fire to combat the novel coronavirus. But an uglier behaviour has also taken root, with several stories of harassment and threatening of medical professionals who are being accused of posing a risk to the community they are seeking to help.
It is not just doctors who are targeted, but COVID-19 patients, or those who are suspected of carrying the disease.
Marisol San Roman, who contracted the illness while studying in Madrid, has received a deluge of vitriol through social media channels. She has been called a leper, threatened with death, told her house will be lit on fire. She says she has heard worse stories from others who reach out to her in fear and indignation. Last week, someone torched the car of a doctor in the province of La Rioja who had tested positive for coronavirus. She had previously criticised the governor, who said that medical professionals need to be more careful in terms of taking precautions.
“When I started to see the level of violence I felt, this can’t happen. It’s not just a message of threats, it’s violence,” said San Roman, 25, who has been dubbed by the media “Patient 130” and has taken on a prominent role talking about the realities of the disease in Argentina. “If they are attacking people, nobody is going to get tested and people are going to live with symptoms and that’s the worst thing that could happen to our society.”
History repeats itself
The behaviour has been vehemently rejected by Argentine officials. The vice mayor of Buenos Aires called the attacks on healthcare workers “inadmissible”. The city’s ombudsman office expressed its “profound worry” and issued a warning to building administrations that the attacks are unacceptable. Argentina’s National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) also launched a campaign aimed at combatting the behaviour. “If the virus doesn’t discriminate, neither should we,” it said in its publicity campaign.
The INADI has seen calls to its office increase by 50 percent since a government-imposed quarantine started, from about 20 to 30 a day. Initially, the calls were from people of Asian descent who had suffered racial discrimination. But complaints also came from other vulnerable groups, such as transgender individuals, who faced eviction during the pandemic.