Government to extend lockdown after week of bad news

9th April 2020

By Luciana Bertoia

Government to extend lockdown after week of bad news

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The government is preparing to announce that the lockdown will be extended for a couple of weeks to keep the curve of COVID-19 contagion as flat as possible in Argentina. President Alberto Fernández made the decision after a complicated week marked by a couple of scandals that tarnished his government’s handling of the pandemic, including a failed re-opening of banks that led to mass agglomerations of retirees in the streets and 15 layoffs at the Social Development Ministry following complaints overpriced food purchases for social assistance.

The president anticipated yesterday that he will extend the quarantine for fear of a “relapse”, though he has not given any details yet. “We cannot have a relapse: all the effort made is very important. We are preparing for more difficult times, for more contagion,” Fernández said.

In Argentina, there are currently 1795 registered cases of COVID-19 and 69 people have died from complications of the virus so far. The peak of cases may not be reached until mid or late May, Fernández’s advisers argue, so lifting the lockdown is at least premature.

The president has the support of the governors, who are expected to hand a report from each of their provinces before tomorrow. In addition, he wants to show his determination in front of business leaders and some sectors of the CGT umbrella union, who are demanding that industrial activity be resumed. Despite Fernández’s ban on layoffs, engineering giant Techint fired 1450 construction workers with the union’s agreement this week, a decision seen as a direct challenge to the presidential authority.

First failures

A progressive lifting of the lockdown, whenever it ends up taking place, will need better protection for people who take it to the streets than the one seen last week. Specialists have been arguing that large conglomerations of people should still be avoided even after the gradual lifting. So the images that traveled the airwaves last Friday, when banks re-opened to allow retirees to collect their pensions, will be an example of what should never be allowed to happen.

The ANSES national social security agency covers 7,000,000 retirees in total, and many of them were still expecting their March payment last week, following delays caused by the decision to not include banks in the “essential services” that remained opened during the first days of the lockdown.

That lack of foresight resulted in long queues that lasted hours, with some pensioners even camping near the banks from the night before as they desperately hoped for quick payment.

The images of the most at-risk population being exposed to potential contagion caused uproar across the country and prompted Fernández to call for an emergency meeting with ANSES head Alejandro Vanoli as well as Central Bank chief Miguel Pesce, asking for explanations. After Friday’s episode, Pesce ordered the banks to extend their working hours and open during the weekend in order to de-congest demand.

Even though the opposition and some sectors of the ruling coalition asked for the resignations of the responsible officials, Fernández decided against it. Also involved was Sergio Palazzo, the bank clerks’ union leader, who had reportedly opposed including banks as an essential activity, although he had warned that a sudden re-opening would likely lead to overcrowding and risks of contagion.

Social aid scandal

Earlier this week, a second scandal erupted when it was revealed that the Ministry of Social Development authorized the purchase of five tons of food for 534 million pesos. Journalists looking at the details of the purchase reported that, despite buying those products in large quantities from wholesale distributors, prices for noodles were significantly higher than the maximum allowed in retail stores amid the government’s price control program.

The government first denied overpaying, but the scandal ended up with the dismissal of fifteen officials. Gonzalo Calvo, Secretary of Social Policy, was the most notable of the lot.

The Ministry of Social Development, led by Daniel Arroyo, shows the complexities of the coalition headed by Fernández. Arroyo, a former Kirchnerite official, has been a member of Sergio Massa’s faction since 2013, and was hardly affected by the scandal.

But his current ministry includes politicians from three other factions as well: hard-line kirchnerites (represented by employees loyal to former minister Alicia Kirchner and by officials from the youth organization La Cámpora), the mayors of Greater Buenos Aires (Calvo was from that group) and the social movements, which also denounced the overpricing.

Fernández is evaluating whether Victoria Tolosa Paz, a close ally of the president in charge of the Argentine Plan against Hunger, should be put in charge of controlling the purchases made by the ministry.

Also under fire last week was Health Minister Ginés González García, who announced that the national government would have the power to administer all health centers for the duration of the pandemic, before backtracking after a meeting with private health institutions.

Keeping a high guard

During his travels through the city this week, Fernández noticed that police controls were somewhat more relaxed, and that more people seemed to have taken to the streets. In the build up to the extended Easter weekend, the President feared this would end up resulting in more unnecessary travel and potential for contagion.

To prevent the exodus to the seaside towns or the country house areas, Fernández asked two of his ministers, Eduardo de Pedro (Interior) and Sabina Frederic (Security), to supervise the operations on the routes themselves. Frederic ordered the intervention of 11,000 agents, 2,600 patrols and two helicopters. Frederic was also in the eye of the storm this week, after she reported in a virtual meeting with Congress members that the security forces would “cyber-patrol” social networks to alert them to the possible commission of a crime.

Fernández wants to maintain strict controls in Greater Buenos Aires, where 70 percent of the detected cases lie. The problem is that social demands and potential for conflict are also concentrated there, due to the levels of poverty, the precarious job market and the poor housing conditions. Elsewhere in the country, the government is already thinking about becoming more flexible, particularly in areas that have not been affected.

Another government concern is public transport, which will continue to operate. The trains coming to the city of Buenos Aires from the province are still overcrowded despite public restrictions, and Fernández said this week that he wants to see “no more than six people per bus” in the streets.

Classes will not resume for the time being, as experts see it as another potential pocket for contagion. Most of the public administration will not resume face-to-face activities either. The Supreme Court of Justice will wait for a new decree from the president extending the quarantine to extend its own recess. The courts are not on vacation, but most of the judges are making decisions without going to their chambers. The activity of the courts is basically focused on investigating crimes related to the quarantine and on resolving requests for house arrest or release, such as that of former Vice President Amado Boudou, who on Monday obtained a favorable ruling that led him out of the Ezeiza prison.

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.