Argentina’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was swift and dramatic. On March 20, President Alberto Fernández decreed an obligatory quarantine, adding that he would be “inflexible” regarding the implementation of the law. He also swatted away criticisms that the quarantine would harm the country’s already anemic economy: “If the choice is being the economy or life, I choose life,” he said.
Initially, Argentines expressed a high level of trust in the president and his hardline approach. However, recent polls show that as the economic situation worsens in the country and the spread of the disease shows little sign of abating, his popularity is beginning to wane. On the other hand, Fernández’s response breathed life into his presidency by helping to establish himself as an authority figure in a government that left observers wondering who was actually in charge.
A complex picture
While other countries are starting to open up, President Fernández rebuffed efforts to soften the quarantine—among the strictest and longest quarantines in the world. Argentina has avoided the exponential growth seen in Brazil and its quarantine has been more successful than Chile’s or Peru’s.
Nevertheless, Argentina has close to 26,000 cases with over 700 deaths. The growth of the virus is concentrated in the environs of Buenos Aires, with the region accounting for about 90 percent of cases.
The economic consequences of the quarantine are also dire. Two-thirds of industrial establishments have not been able to operate, with 61 percent blaming the quarantine. As a result, industrial production fell at a record rate of 34 percent in April and construction collapsed by 76 percent.
The country has seen poverty surge from 36 percent in the second half of 2019 to 40 percent by April 2020, as per private estimates. The situation would have been worse if the government did not implement an emergency cash transfer program for Argentina’s millions of informal workers. The program covers about nine million Argentines and economy minister Martín Guzman claims it kept up to 4.5 million people out of poverty.
The strictness of the nation-wide quarantine has become politically and economically untenable. Eighty-five percent of Argentina does not have community spread. New regulations have split the country into two zones: the first is composed of the 85 percent of the nation that does not have community spread, and zone two is composed of the 15 percent that does. In the former, social distancing measures are to be imposed, but economic and social life can begin to restart. The second zone is predominantly in and around Buenos Aires.
A mystery inside a tinderbox
The number of Argentines going to work remains 30 percent lower than January, and higher compared to neighboring Uruguay (14 percent). Mobility data from Buenos Aires show that requests for walking directions is 77 percent lower than in January—similar to New York City at the height of that city’s crisis in April.
Even though Argentines and porteños have been faithful to remaining at home, it has not stopped rapid spread of the virus; worse, Argentina’s low testing rate means that the data available may vastly underestimate the real scale of the pandemic in the country.
Access to testing appears to be correlated with the affluence of cities in and around Buenos Aires and state capacity of municipalities. For example, the testing rate in rich downtown Buenos Aires is about 50 times higher than the largely poor and sprawling La Matanza.
The stark inequality between the city and the surrounding suburbs is a result of bad governance and deindustrialization. According to the latest poverty data, poverty in the city of Buenos Aires stood at 8.7 percent, while in the surrounding areas it reached 31.8 percent.
Tensions between provincial officials and those of the city of Buenos Aires are well known. Apart from being from diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum, the loosening of quarantine measures in the city undermine provincial efforts to control spread, creating more tension. If the city opened up, suburbanites would go into the city to work on public transit—a well-known vector of spread. Recently, authorities on both sides of the General Paz ring road have agreed to limit opening.
Winter of Discontent
Efforts to contain the spread through obligatory quarantine in the Buenos Aires region may have avoided even more dramatic spread, but it has not led to a deceleration of new cases. Argentina now regularly logs days with record new cases.
The bulk of new cases come from the province of Buenos Aires. The rate of duplication in the province is the fastest in the country at 14.6 days, while the city has seen growth in cases stabilize with duplication occurring every 18.7 days.
The province’s struggle to stem the growth of COVID-19 was made visible in the emblematic Villa Azul case. On May 24, an outbreak in the informal settlement of about 4,000 people led authorities to form a blockade around the villa, preventing people from entering or leaving without permission.
The government’s goal was to stop the spread of the virus to the much larger neighboring Villa Itatí. Authorities claim that without the blockade, cases would have been ten times higher. The decision was criticized by members of the government, including Daniel Menéndez, a social movement leader and high level official at the social development ministry, “it looks like we are creating ghettos for poor people.” Recently, authorities declared the blockade over as contagion slowed down.
The rapid spread of the disease in Argentina’s vast and densely populated villas highlights how decades of underinvestment in basic infrastructure, economic development and social inclusion have left the country vulnerable. A recent World Bank report warns: “Lockdowns are ineﬀective in containing the spread of the disease when they are imposed in cities with pervasively overcrowded dwellings and neighborhoods. [In such neighborhoods], instead of social distancing, the result from a lockdown is social compression as people are forced into crowded living quarters.”
As I argued in another Global Americans article, a reason for the unusually low number of cases in Uruguay may be because informal settlements “are not in sprawling and dense neighborhoods that dot many Latin American cities.”
Argentina faces a very complicated winter. As the pandemic persists and the economy fades, the government’s support may erode further. To counteract this, the government is starting to politicize and polarize against the opposition.
Argentina is also teetering on the edge of default. Without a finalized debt restructuring agreement with international creditors, the country is bleeding reserves. In response, the government has imposed draconian capital controls and used inflationary monetary emission to cover the huge fiscal gap. Sooner or later, repressed inflation will rear its ugly head. If that were to happen in an uncontrolled way, the government’s efforts to suppress the spread of COVID-19 will be thrown into serious doubt.