Fear of unrest grows as lockdown likely to be extended

26th March 2020

By Luciana Bertoia

Fear of unrest grows as lockdown likely to be extended

We at The Essential have decided to drop our paywall so everyone can access all of our content related to the coronavirus. To help keep our relevant reporting and coverage free, we have dramatically cut the cost of our subscriptions and we ask that you become a subscriber. Click here to see our new prices and sign up.

President Alberto Fernández is strongly considering extending the country’s coronavirus lockdown into April, as the rate of contagion is still not seen as close to its peak by health authorities, but he is also paying close attention to the social mood before making any new announcements.

The government is concerned that extending the general, mandatory quarantine — which has been in effect since March 20 — will start to generate unrest, especially in lower-income areas. Cases of looting and deadly prison riots have already been reported and are among the top government concerns, as overcrowding and a sudden economic halt amid the country’s informal sector could make the crisis more dangerous.

Economic aid

The COVID-19 pandemic has so far made its way through some of the world’s richest countries, but new challenges will appear now that it is reaching poorer regions, with lower hospital capacity, higher economic fragility and more uncertainty with regards to how society will respond to strict restrictions on their freedoms.

In Argentina, Fernández is evaluating measures to alleviate the impacts of the coronavirus lockdown in the middle and lower sectors.

Legal and Technical Secretary Vilma Ibarra is working on a bill to freeze rentals and prevent evictions in the next 180 days. The government’s idea is to send the bill to the Lower House, but the quarantine could impede the functioning of the body. Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa is evaluating how to carry out the session and does not rule out doing it virtually. Some other members of the ruling Frente de Todos believe that the President should sign a decree.

For lower-income sectors, the government has provided a monthly subsidy of 10,000 pesos (150 US dollars), which will last for the duration of the emergency.

In addition, Fernandez banned the suspension of electricity, gas, water, telephone and internet services for 180 days if users fail to pay their bills on time. These are all measures designed to nip any potential sources of unrest in the bud.

Fear in Greater BA

As is often the case, Greater Buenos Aires is among the areas that the government is most concerned about.

Data on infections show that the greatest number of people infected with the new coronavirus are concentrated there, and it is also there that the hospital system looks among the most vulnerable. Added to these concerns is the fact that the population depends on their daily income from jobs, generally informal, so the lockdown could have special negative consequences.

“The epicenter of the problem is in the City of Buenos Aires and its surroundings, and the number of people infected in that sector is 70 percent of the total,” said the president.

On Monday, Fernández met with the mayors of Greater Buenos Aires at the Olivos presidential residence. The conversation revolved around two topics: food and security. He promised, along with Buenos Aires Governor Axel Kicillof, to set up a crisis committee with the mayors of those cities.

On Wednesday, the president received a group of priests who work in the slums. The priests explained the difficulties that people living in these settlements have in complying with the mandatory isolation. An an example, a priest who works in a slum in San Isidro set up a parish flat so that elderly people can spend their quarantine there.

Since the issue of housing is critical in the lower income sectors, Fernandez recorded a message praying with the priests in which he also called on people to “stay home, stay in your neighborhood.”

Looting precautions

The security minister of Buenos Aires province, Sergio Berni, said that the “most complicated” areas of Greater Buenos Aires are Moreno, La Matanza and the southern neighborhoods. La Matanza alone concentrates more than 11 percent of the province’s total population. “It is in these places where the greatest pockets of poverty are, and where we intensify our work,” Berni said.

So far, the authorities have reported only one case of looting in Buenos Aires province. The episode took place on Saturday in Ensenada, where a group of 15 people looted a grocery store.

According to La Nación columnist Carlos Pagni, several supermarkets removed the most expensive goods from their branches in Greater Buenos Aires fearing that the scenario would become more critical.

Controls and restrictions

There’s a lot of fear among provincial municipalities. According to Clarín, at least eleven mayors went as far as blocking access to their cities. Berni criticized the measures, saying that this will cause infected people to wander all around the province.

Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta also restricted access to the City, where millions of people usually travel daily for work, in line with President Fernandez’s request. The controls, however, have led to a series of bottle necks that slowed down doctors and other essential workers looking to reach their destinies, sparking criticism from both the city and the national government, which promised changes for the next few days.

The coronavirus lockdown forced the mobilization of federal forces to prevent the population from leaving their homes, as well as local police forces. The Ministry of Security – led by Sabina Frederic – has already announced that it will seek to incorporate retired personnel to collaborate with prevention tasks. The Ministry of Defense, led by Agustín Rossi, is not allowed to have its forces patrolling the streets, but is setting up hospitals and helping with food deliveries. The Army is deployed in Quilmes, in Greater Buenos Aires, providing food in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

The government is considering giving a bonus to workers from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Security and Ministry of Defence for the intense tasks they will carry out while the pandemic lasts.

A flood of complaints

The courts are overwhelmed by complaints due to quarantine violations. On Saturday, the judge in charge of these cases, Luis Rodríguez, asked Minister Frederic and Diego Santilli (who oversees security in the BA City), to take greater precautions and look for different ways to address the problem, as his team was not able to deal with the massive amount of new suits.

In the City of Buenos Aires, more than 1,200 complaints are being processed. According to the Ministry of Security, federal forces arrested more than 2,200 people throughout the country and more than 41,300 were notified that a judicial case would be initiated against them.

Cases of police abuse and violence were also reported. Consulted by The Essential, Frederic’s spokespeople said they had no confirmation regarding the total number of complaints, but that they were being answered as soon as they arrived. Two cases involving abuse by Border Guards have so far led to Frederic ordering their removal.

Prison riots

The government is paying special attention to what happens in prisons around the country, which are overcrowded and have few resources. In Santa Fe, there were riots in two prisons that ended with five deaths and forced the intervention of special security groups. “The operation to recover the units was tough,” a top Santa Fe Security Ministry source told The Essential.

In the province of Buenos Aires, there were protests in a couple of prisons. The Justice Ministry explained that calm had returned and that 99 percent of the inmates agreed not to receive visits to prevent the COVID-19 from entering the prison units. However, the authorities decreed an exception so that family members could bring them food and soap to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.

The Federal Prison Service (SPF) reported that it has 1172 people in custody that could be classified as high risk for the virus. The list arrived yesterday at the Federal Court of Cassation, the highest criminal court in the country, which will send it to the rest of the federal chambers. Although the SPF took steps to isolate and detect cases early, fear in the system is widespread.

The National Committee for the Prevention of Torture has been calling for a review of pre-trial detention and for home prisons to be made available to people at risk, such as pregnant women, women who are in prison with their children under four years old and people with serious illnesses.

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.