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Coronavirus Profiteers: With The Virus Come The Vultures

While we see a general boost in solidarity, a small minority is looking to profit from the COVID-19 tragedy, feeding on a weakened and distracted society.

Buenos Aires police detain a suspect on March 22 after the national quarantine began.
Buenos Aires police detain a suspect on March 22 after the national quarantine began.
Alberto Amato

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — When tragedy strikes, as it has with the COVID-19 pandemic, the vultures are always quick to descend. These scavengers come to feed off a society that is ailing, threatened or defenseless. They are a minority, for sure, but there are still far too many.

The first of these vultures tried to flout the mandatory confinement. The old Argentine society — the one that existed before the virus and is giving way to a new, yet-to-be-understood reality — hates abiding by rules. It admires countries where people respect the rule of law, but doesn't like to follow those same laws here, its own territory.

Years ago, during the dictatorship and in order to organize automobile traffic, someone thought of limiting circulation on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to cars with an even number plate. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays would be for cars with odd number plates, and on Sundays, anyone could drive. But right away, exceptions and exemptions began to emerge. Doctors, professors, sewerage operatives, accordion players, civil servants, soldiers, diplomats ... Everyone found an excuse not to comply, and so, within a month there was no telling who was supposed to drive when.

Disobedient civilians are placing lives at risk.

In that case, the civil disobedience wasn't really a matter of life and death. Our lives, after all, were already in the hands of a dictatorial junta. But today's disobedient civilians, not to mention all the people who are just plain idiots, are placing lives at risk.

The second wave of vultures infected — and yes, that is the right word — the social networks with the sinister trend of fake news, lies, fraud, magic recipes against contagion like washing in your urine or chewing a piece of garlic while fasting and the like ... There are the tasteless memes too — from all those irrepressible funnymen who think they're as clever as ever.

The third wave of vultures also swooped in on the back of Internet. An increase in home working and banking operations online, alongside an overflow of malicious mails, have proved a boon to hackers and all those who are keen, as always, to steal personal data or harm hospital, media or security systems. In more prosaic form, common criminals have also sought to enter residential blocks and flats, using fake IDs to pose as telecom technicians, doctors, ambulance drivers, healthcare workers or firemen.

While the vultures scavenge, the majority of people are of a very different mindset.

The rest of the scavenging pack is to be found in politics. Some will estimate the final death toll and use the pandemic to settle old scores from their time in government, or bring out their tattered old political IOUs. Others blame the pandemic on a particular social sector in a bid to consolidate their populist discourse. Yet others will try to piggyback on the appreciation being shown to medics and nurses, presenting their achievements as those of a government they hardly represent.

Curiously, while the vultures scavenge, the majority of people are instead of quite a different mindset. We're seeing an unusual, if not unprecedented, revaluation of certain overlooked professions: supermarket cashiers, shelf stackers or bank employees refilling ATM machines, trash collectors, carers in old people's homes, doctors and nurses who risk their lives on an invisible front line.

Indeed, a big chunk of society is applauding and singing to them from their balconies, belting out the national anthem, in some cases. These are expressions of gratitude, but also fear. Not that the vultures care. They feed on corpses.



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Society

Gluten-Free In France: Stepping Out Of The Shadows, Heading Upmarket

For those in the haute cuisine world of French food, a no-gluten diet (whether by choice or health requirements) has long been a virtual source of shame. But bakers, chefs and pastry makers are now taking the diet to whole new levels of taste and variety.

photo of a man carrying bread in a field

Paris-based entrepreneur Adriano Farano, in Sicily, where his company's wheat is grown

Adriano Farano's Instagram page
David Barroux

PARIS — The "gluten-free" aren’t hiding anymore.

Whether they avoid the grain protein by choice or by obligation — due to taste, allergies or an intolerance — many stick to a diet seen by the outside world as a little bit funny, or perhaps simply just bland.

For some, being gluten-free even came with some amount of self-consciousness: about being that person, the one who announced at the beginning of dinner that they wouldn’t be eating that bread, or that pasta, or that pastry — or about coming across as precious and complicated, or worse, as a killjoy for everyone else’s gustatory pleasure.

For those who feel that it is hard to speak up, it's often easier just to keep the gluten intolerance to themselves and eat only the vegetables at meals, abstaining from bread and dessert to avoid stomach cramps.

But the times, they are a-changin'. Living without gluten used to feel punitive; now it feels more like an option. The number of gluten-free products has exploded, in both quantity and quality, and there’s never been a better time to join the "no-glu" camp.

In supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants, there are increasingly varied alternatives to gluten. And demand is just as high — €1 billion per year in sales in France alone, according to Nielsen. The research consultancy found that 3% of French households were gluten-free in 2019. Now, that number is 4.4%, which is twice as high as the number of “strictly vegetarian” households.

According to market research firm Kantar, the frequency and number of purchases, as well as the average amount spent for gluten-free products, continues to increase — up 6% compared with 2019.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that gluten-free alternatives are becoming increasingly chic.

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