Argentina eases lockdown as COVID-19 cases grow

14th May 2020

By Ignacio Portes

Argentina eases lockdown as COVID-19 cases grow

After almost two months of strict lockdown across the country, with relatively successful results in terms of reducing contagion, most of Argentina is moving to less strict restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. But the easing is happening just as cases start to spike and reach new highs.

On the latest daily report on Wednesday 13, daily cases stood at 316, the second largest number after Tuesday, as detection continued to spike in slums and nursing homes, although daily deaths still remain relatively flat.

The vast majority of those cases are coming from Buenos Aires City and the Greater Buenos Aires area, so the return of pre-pandemic activities are mostly taking place on the country’s remaining 22 provinces, plus the large rural areas of Buenos Aires Province. Out of yesterday’s 316 cases, 178 came from Buenos Aires City (where only 6% of Argentines live), plus 96 from Buenos Aires Province, most of them in the city’s outskirts.

That means that 7 out of 8 COVID-19 cases came from either the City or Greater BA. But with struggling small businesses desperate for income and pressure to allow some recreational outdoors activity as well, even Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta eased some local restrictions this week.

Provinces on “Phase 4”

On this weekend’s press conference with Larreta and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof, President Alberto Fernández said the remaining 22 provinces would move on from Phase 3 to Phase 4 of the lockdown starting this week.

According to the criteria set by the nation, Phase 3 of the lockdown is one of national restrictions, with local mobility reduced by at least 50 percent and local governments authorizing which non-essential industries are allowed to re-open. Phase 4, meanwhile, allows for significantly higher mobility (up to 75 percent of the population) and more non-essential services in areas of slower contagion rates.

But before a region is authorized to move from Phase 3 to Phase 4, the speed at which new cases double must be slowed down to at least 25 days, a criteria currently not met in Buenos Aires City or Buenos Aires Province.

“I ask those in the city and its outskirts for patience. Here is where most of the risk from the pandemic is concentrated, so restrictions will continue as they were until today,” Fernández said in his presentation.

In fact, the acceleration of cases in Buenos Aires City seen since the President’s press conference now means that the city’s cases have doubled over the last 11 days, moving even faster than the threshold of 15 days per duplication allowed to enter Phase 3. That means that the country’s capital could even roll back into Phase 2, with even stricter restrictions to mobility, if the situation does not turn around quickly.

Cautious re-opening

Mid-size provinces such as Mendoza, Jujuy and Salta have gone as far as getting the greenlight to re-open bars, restaurants and shopping centers, though with strict hygiene and social distancing measures which limit the amount of customers per building.

All non-essential commerce, house cleaning services, gambling and individual sports were also authorized, although public transport will remain exclusive for essential workers across the country. This means that employers will have to organize internally to bring in workers through private transportation if they want them to attend, as the national government fears buses and trains could be one of the main risk points for the spread of the virus.

Buenos Aires City, meanwhile, will have a much milder process, still within the constraints of Phase Three. Some non-essential shops will re-open, with retail sales of appliances, stationery, furniture and vehicles, among others, returning this week. Retailers of clothing and footwear will remain closed, not to mention bars, shopping centers, galleries and others, which will likely stay banned for several more months in the city.

In Greater Buenos Aires, hundreds of industries were also cleared to re-start their assembly lines, as the threat of scarcity and bankruptcy was becoming larger by the day.

The mountain ahead

The big question mark that comes with this lighter approach is that, while in the first world the worst weeks of the pandemic might be behind them, this is undoubtedly not the case in Argentina.

“We are adding new activities with the mountain (of new cases) still ahead of us, while the world is leaving its mountain behind. This is entering into uncharted territory,” BA City Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli said this week.

The health professionals advising the Peronist government at the national level, as well as those who work with the non-Peronist opposition in the city, have been steady in their message that restrictions will be re-established if contagion speeds up.

According to Santilli, the new freedoms will be rolled back if “the new cases adding up to the contagion curve stop being localized”. For the moment, the city’s problem is still seen as specific to the Villa 31 and Villa 11-14 slums, plus a few nursing homes, and medical resources are being poured into those places to attend to their cases. But if the number of new daily infections starts spreading out more homogeneously through the city, then the only solution will be a stricter lockdown again, the national and city governments agree.

Lockdown still popular

The multitude of opinion polls doing the rounds still show that the lockdown is widely popular among the population, both in Buenos Aires and in the provinces, despite some protests in balconies and social networks and concern from small business owners under economic duress.

There is also little division in terms of class: the poor and the middle classes largely support the lockdown, although the most highly educated call for some more flexibilization, while those with less years in the school system are more prone to call for tougher measures.

In the weeks to come, all eyes should move from Buenos Aires City to Greater Buenos Aires. While the slums in the city have been a problem, they might only be the tip of the icerberg, as they have also been more widely tested than the slums in the outskirts, where they are much larger. The teams of Governor Axel Kicillof and the regional Peronist and non-Peronist mayors say they will start actively visiting slums and poor neighborhoods this week, looking door to door for people presenting cough, fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms in order to test them.

Ignacio Portes

Ignacio Portes is The Essential's General Editor. Former Economy editor at the Buenos Aires Herald, he has also written for publications such as Naked Capitalism, NSFWCorp and Revista Debate.