Politics

President orders mandatory coronavirus lockdown

19th March 2020

By Luciana Bertoia

President orders mandatory coronavirus lockdown

In a desperate attempt to halt the advance of COVID-19 in Argentina, President Alberto Fernandez ordered tonight a mandatory nationwide lockdown to delay the spread of the virus that by March 19 has killed almost 10,000 people globally and caused at least 250,000 infections, with 128 cases and 3 deaths already confirmed in Argentina.

The lockdown announcement is the latest in a series of escalating efforts to tackle the pandemic. These have included the imposition of mandatory quarantines for international travelers, the temporary suspension of the school year, the full closure of borders for all non-citizens, mandatory paid leave for those above 60 years old or with other risk factors, suspensions of all public events, and more.

The goal of the lockdown, which only leaves some basic services open, is to tackle the community-level spread of the disease before it reaches the critical heights seen in Europe, which the World Health Organization now sees as the center of the pandemic. Mass-scale contagion began weeks earlier in countries such as Italy, Spain and France, so a lockdown could potentially allow Argentina to avoid the levels of health infrastructure overload currently seen in the first world.

Given the radical nature of the decision, which restricts the free movement of citizens, Fernandez made the resolution after meeting with all 24 provincial governments as well as the leaders of the opposition, in what has become a rare case of bipartisanship in contemporary Argentine politics.

“Starting at midnight, Border Guards and Coast Guards, Federal Police and provincial police officers will be controlling street circulation. Whoever is caught outside without a good explanation of what they are doing will be facing criminal prosecution,” Fernández said, flanked by four governors, two from the ruling Peronist party and two from the opposition, all of them standing at a prudent distance. “It is an exceptional measure that we take according to what democracy allows us. I hope there are better moments ahead in the four years I have left as a President”.

Details of the lockdown

The lockdown, which starts at midnight, will last until March 31, with the government moving the April 2 Malvinas War memorial holiday forward to minimize the amount of working days lost due to the emergency.

Military, police, firemen, air traffic controllers, migration officers, basic public sector workers, health and social aid workers, reporters and those working in the provision of basic goods and services such as food, transport, communications or waste management will be exempted from the lockdown.

Proximity stores such as supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores, laundry and veterinary shops will also remain open. Banks, malls, restaurants, coffee shops and most other stores will be closed.

This means that a large majority of citizens working in the private and public sector, as well as those self-employed and unregistered, will have to stay at home for the full duration of the lockdown, until the end of the month, only coming out of their homes to make basic purchases in the proximity stores near them. Workers will still be paid in full, with the Labor Ministry currently fine tuning the details on how to make sure that everyone will still get paid despite the sudden drop in economic activity.

A hyperactive president

President Fernández has now become the government’s main spokesman on the pandemic, particularly after his Health Minister, Ginés González García, acknowledged in interviews that he thought the coronavirus would arrive in the country later.

The president has been hyperactive, either personally tracking down and denouncing a recent traveler who beat up a security guard that tried to prevent him from violating his 14-day mandatory quarantine, or answering WhatsApp messages from a group of Argentines stranded in Peru.

The change in tone from the national administration has been evident since last week, as the specialist roundtable that advises Fernández on the issue has grown more alarmed by the potential spread of the virus.

So far, the virus has not been confirmed as reaching the community transmission phase, which means that only those who were abroad or those who had close contact with people who traveled have been diagnosed as positive. But the large amount of people violating their quarantine, the masses still seen in shops and streets, and the low number of tests made so far mean that the likelihood of community transmission is much higher than official figures suggest.

As a result, the government has been progressively ramping up the preventative measures in areas ranging from border control to health infrastructure and public gatherings.

Borders

The border closure last week caused some of the largest scrambles, as it forced the government to launch an against-the-clock repatriation process for Argentines that had travelled abroad.

The Foreign Ministry set up a special, round the clock, 24-hour call center to deal with queries from travelers after Fernández announced that Argentina would close its borders on Sunday.

The Interior Ministry, headed by Eduardo de Pedro, and the Security Ministry, led by Sabina Frederic, were left in charge of controlling that no other people cross the country’s borders.

Aerolíneas Argentinas, the state-owned airline, was tasked with bringing the stranded Argentines back home, though the process proved so complex that private companies are now also helping with that operation as well.

According to sources at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are between 23,000 to 25,000 Argentines still to return to the country in the coming weeks.

Health infrastructure

On March 10, the government announced the creation of a special, 1.7 billion pesos fund for the purchase of hospital supplies and revamping of infrastructure.

Health Minister Ginés González García said all the ventilators that were available in the country have now been purchased by the state. Public Works Minister Gabriel Katopodis, meanwhile, announced yesterday that the government will build eight modular hospitals that will provide 560 more beds to be distributed in Greater Buenos Aires, Rosario, Córdoba and Chaco, some of the country’s biggest urban centers. In addition, Katopodis confirmed that the administration will finish pending works in two medical centres in La Matanza, the most populated district of Greater Buenos Aires.

The Argentine Army is also being mobilized, turning all of its military tailoring units into medical supply manufacturing centers, with masks and disposable medical uniforms among the highest priorities.

Holidays for all medical personnel have been cancelled, and patients that are not in need of urgent care are gradually being discharged and sent home from private and public hospitals across the nation, while special areas for COVID-19 patients are also being created.

Schools and cultural activities

After initial resistance (similar to that seen in New York) due to concerns about food programs and other social support provided by schools, the government finally decided to suspend classes last Sunday. The suspension will initially last 14 days, until March 31 with the end of the lockdown, but it’s likely to be extended until Argentina’s coronavirus case curve shows some evidence of flattening.

Students will have virtual or televised classes for the duration of the isolation measures. National universities also postponed the start of this year’s first term until April, while workers  who need to take care of children were granted leave of absence, similarly to those over 60 or with risk factors such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

The government also ordered the closure of cinemas and theaters, as well as the national museums and memorial sites that are under the umbrella of the Executive branch. Human rights organizations canceled the annual March 24 demonstration in commemoration of the 1976 coup d’etat, while the annual International Book Fair in April has also been postponed.

The country’s most popular sport, football (soccer) saw its tournament suspended after some initial back and forth. River Plate refused to play its match against Atlético Tucumán last week, while other games were played behind closed doors. President Fernández initially hoped games could continue to be played and transmitted on free-to-air TV to encourage people to stay home, but the escalation of the lockdown eventually led to the suspension of all sports in the country.

Tourism and Security

The government has also tried to actively discourage people on leave (and on lockdown starting tomorrow) from going on vacation. Viral tweets on social media denounced a rise in tourism to coastal cities, but coastal mayors have responded by asking tourists not to go because the main attractions will be closed.

The Minister of Security has already announced that the Border Patrol will block the main routes to tourism hotspots during the weekend.

The government banned hotels from accommodating national residents until March 31 and allowed them to accommodate foreign tourists until they complied with the mandatory 14-day quarantine. Hotels belonging to unions will be made available to the government to house patients if the virus spreads throughout the country to the point of collapsing the number of beds available in the public health system.

Security forces are conducting operations to detain and deport foreign visitors who do not comply with the quarantine. The Government also provided a phone number to report those who have traveled abroad and do not comply with isolation orders. As of 7pm on Wednesday, the Ministry of Security had received 2813 complaints and was investigating 181 of them as credible cases.

Courts and prisons

The courts are virtually paralyzed after the Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a series of measures similar to those for summer and winter breaks, which will last until March 31. The resolution generated strong disputes within the country’s highest court and did not end up satisfying the judicial employees’ unions or the Magistrates Council, the body in charge of selecting judges and administering the judiciary. They say that the Court should have taken a more extreme measure so that there is no circulation in there.

The COVID-19 pandemic has two impacts on the courts. On the one hand, most of the ongoing trials have been or will be suspended. This includes the case with the trial for alleged irregularities in the awarding of public works in Santa Cruz that has current Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner among its defendants.

Other former Kirchnerite officials have asked to be released from prison, such as Amado Boudou (former vice-president), Juan Pablo Schiavi (former secretary of Transportation), as well as social activist Luis D’Elía, who was imprisoned for taking over a police station in 2004. On Wednesday, a court granted home detention to Kirchnerite businessman Lázaro Báez, but he will remain in prison for the time being because another court refused to release him.

The Ministry of Justice has taken steps to prevent contagion in federal prisons, which have been overcrowded and have been in emergency mode since March last year. Riots and prison breaks in other countries amid the pandemic have raised alarms that similar problems could take place in Argentina.

The Federal Prison Service (SPF) is currently compiling lists of prisoners in risk groups (pregnant women, mothers in prison with their underaged children, prisoners suffering from HIV, tuberculosis or heart disease, and prisoners over 65 years old). These lists will be made available before the end of the week so that judges can decide whether to order house arrest. This could lead, among other things, to the release of the dictatorship-era repressors on the eve of the 44th anniversary of the coup.

Luciana Bertoia

Luciana Bertoia is a journalist specialized in judicial, political and human rights issues. She has published in Ámbito Financiero, Página/12, the Buenos Aires Herald and the International Justice Tribune.