Is the COVID-19 lockdown losing popularity?

4th June 2020

By Ignacio Portes

Is the COVID-19 lockdown losing popularity?

It’s been two and a half months since President Alberto Fernández put Argentina under lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision was politically successful, but signs of weariness and even active resistance to the lockdown have been growing under the surface, and are now emerging in some quarters of society.

So is an anti-lockdown rebellion coming? Or does the government have the resources to placate it? And how representative are these critics of Argentine society’s overall sentiment towards the pandemic?

The dissenting camp

The lockdown critics cannot be uniformly grouped. Their motivations range from economic to ideological, and they are not yet acting as a single block, although they have been making more noise over the last couple of weeks.

The most repercussion in the media came perhaps from the more ideological camps. An anti-lockdown protest in Plaza de Mayo with alt-right vibes, a letter signed by 300 anti-Peronist intellectuals arguing that the government was taking advantage of the pandemic to make authoritarian advances, and a rise in TV hosts dedicating their shows to bash the government’s approach to the pandemic.

It’s easy to dismiss some of these critics as a mere fringe, given the sometimes outlandish and over the top remarks one can hear from them. Government-friendly cable news channel C5N took some delight interviewing protesters that carried anti “New World Order” placards and spoke of plots to take over the world through the virus. The letter signed by intellectuals, meanwhile, said democracy was “at risk” and an “infectatorship” was controlling the COVID-19 narrative in Argentina.

But the protests have also been fueled by the country’s deepening economic problems. First hand experiences of the crisis were often mentioned hand by hand with the conspiracy theories during the Plaza de Mayo protests, with demonstrators telling obviously painful stories of bankruptcy and financial duress. The left has also been organizing their own “socially distanced” protests, demanding support for vulnerable regions to make the lockdown viable.

In the media, the return of anti-Kirchnerite journalist Jorge Lanata to the airwaves saw him beat all his competition in Sunday night prime time TV ratings, showing there’s hunger for hardline criticism of the government’s approach to the pandemic even if it’s still overall popular. Other right-wing hosts such as Baby Etchecopar or Eduardo Feinmann are also fighting for the lead in cable TV almost every day in their timeslots by taking aim at the lockdown.

Political support

Although Fernández has so far managed to build a broad coalition in which even opposition governors and mayors feel like they are playing for his team, the government thinks a fraction of the opposition is behind these protests, or at least working in tandem with them.

Former President Mauricio Macri, former VP candidate Miguel Pichetto and former Security minister Patricia Bullrich are seen as looking to capitalize discontent into a more hardline opposition, as well as the libertarian economists who worked around José Luis Espert’s presidential candidacy and other right-wing political figures that have been quite openly challenging the lockdown.

The government generally dismisses these attacks as coming from an opposition that “does not have any administrative responsibilities,” and can thus throw political slogans around with no need to back them up with action. The strategy is to constantly praise opposition governors and mayors, who do generally back the lockdown, to highlight that contrast.

But pressure is now also coming from those in administrative positions, with multiple reports of Buenos Aires Province mayors calling to ease or even lift the lockdown, after months of economic inactivity have started to take its toll in their region’s businesses. Governor Axel Kicillof is between a rock and a hard place, with cases rising in Buenos Aires Province while pressure to re-open increases, but his government hopes that a localized approach will be enough to contain the problem, opening up business where pressure is too high and cases are still manageable, while keeping a very close eye in high risk areas such as slums and public transport.

“The lockdown has been broken down by political action. The opposition has managed to break it down,” Buenos Aires Province’s high-profile Security Minister Sergio Berni told the America TV station yesterday. “The social contract that made the lockdown effective at first has now been broken. Now people are going out of their homes every half hour. We will have to act in a focalized and segmented way, going to the places that have more cases, as we did in Villa Azul slum last week,” Berni said.

Social tension, police abuse

There is also a new angle of criticism aimed at the government over the last few weeks, which has grown in visibility with the George Floyd killing protests in the United States: that of police abuse during the enforcement of the lockdown, particularly in poorer regions.

The crime of rural worker Luis Espinoza in Tucumán was among the most shocking: after detaining him and his brother, Espinoza was shot in the head by a police gun, and his body disappeared and thrown in the neighboring province of Catamarca, with many in the local police department likely involved in the cover up.

In the province of Chaco, a family of indigenous ascendancy was detained, hit, sprayed with alcohol and threatened to be burnt alive by officers who were searching for a suspect. Two other deaths linked to the police were reported in San Luis province.

The opposition, which has generally maintained a more hard-line approach in policing, took a different road this time and accused the government of hypocritically tolerating human rights abuses when they happened under its watch.

“The PRO Party is demanding full respect of constitutional rights and asking the government not to be indifferent, because silence equals complicity,” a document distributed this week by members of Macri’s party said. Mario Negri, the leader of the PRO-UCR-CC caucus in the House of Representatives, argued Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla should be fired.

Curtailing police abuse is a cause close to the hearts of the most progressive faction within the ruling coalition (though not so much of the Peronist governors), and the pandemic has given the armed forces increased control over the streets, so this could be another thorny issue in the management of the lockdown, especially as social tension grows with the economic crisis.

What polls say

In their day-to-day decision making, Argentine politicians tend to look at polls constantly. So what do they say at the moment? The most recent public survey, from the University of Belgrano, said 60 percent of Buenos Aires City inhabitants still back the extended lockdown, with 23 percent against it.

But sources close to the Buenos Aires City government say Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta also has some figures showing that, although a majority still supports it, most within that group wants it to become more flexible, while only a minority wants to keep all restrictions.

Wider data for the whole country over the last few days is not available, but with infectious disease experts now worried about contagion spreading all along Buenos Aires City and its outskirts and hospital beds slowly filling up, the government will be walking a very thin line over the coming weeks to keep the current delicate equilibrium from breaking down.

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.