"You Should Be Right here": Argentina's Love for Maradona Overcomes Fears of COVID-19

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© Reuters. People react as they queue for football legend Diego Maradona at the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires

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By Maximilian Heath and Eliana Raszewski

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Thousands of Argentinians wearing soccer jerseys and face masks packed in line on the streets of Buenos Aires on Thursday to pay their final respects to flawed soccer genius Diego Maradona – despite concerns over the spread of COVID- 19th

The crowds, some expect to see a million people after his death on Wednesday to see Maradona's coffin, reflect the football star's status in the South American country where he is almost cult and lovingly known as "God" is.

"You have to be here. No way that would happen. Somehow that's Maradona breaking the rules too," said Marcelo Gades, a 52-year-old clerk waiting to join the wake with a rose in his hand .

"Argentina is Maradona, and Maradona is Argentina, with all the good and all the bad."

Argentina has recorded nearly 1.4 million cases and 37,714 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic. The government imposed a strict lockdown in March and restrictions on schools and travel remain in place. New cases have slowed down in recent weeks.

Maradona's massive wake sparked some criticism on social media as the government limited the number of people who could attend wakes and funerals in an effort to contain the virus.

In recent weeks, rules have been relaxed to allow better access to cemeteries, although indoor gatherings generally remain severely restricted.

While the authorities had disinfection machines at the entrance to the palace in which people went in procession through the closed coffin, many devotees crowded outside the entrance and some sang and drank without face masks.

"So many people gathered together to say goodbye to Maradona are a source of direct COVID contagion," 55-year-old Argentine doctor Alberto Ugalde told Reuters. "I see people on the street are crowded and even some without face masks."

"I understand the pain, given what an idol he is to us, but the health risks are high."

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