COVID-19 spreads quietly as testing proves insufficient

18th June 2020

By Ignacio Portes

COVID-19 spreads quietly as testing proves insufficient

A quick look at the COVID-19 numbers in Latin America might suggest that Argentina is doing relatively well. But although figures are indeed better than many of its neighbors in comparison, the situation in the Buenos Aires metro area, home to 40 percent of the country’s population, is showing signs that it might be starting to get out of control.

The country had its record number of COVID-19 deaths yesterday with 35, and although the figure does not look catastrophic at first sight, a deep look into testing numbers suggests cases over the past few weeks have accelerated much faster than official figures suggest. The death toll, thus, could also be on the verge of rapidly expanding.

</p> <h2><strong>Worrying data</strong></h2> <p>While the Argentine death toll is still rising slowly, the amount of cases has been <a href="https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/argentina">going up much faster</a>. The 7-day moving average for deaths only doubled over the last month, while that of cases more than quadrupled, from 290 to almost 1400.</p> <p>And <strong>this is not due to an improvement in testing, as the share of tests that come out positive is steadily increasing</strong>, suggesting Argentina is only testing the very obvious and failing to track the virus’ expansion through people with less obvious symptoms.</p> <p>Barely more than a month ago, on week 20 of the year, only 9% of COVID-19 tests done in Buenos Aires Province were coming out positive, while in Buenos Aires City that figure stood at 24%. By week 24, 27% percent of tests in the province are detecting infections, as well as 38% in BA city. If the nascent tracing programs of the <em>Detectar</em> program (used mostly in slums but now slowly being expanded to other neighborhoods) are excluded from those calculations, the amount of positive COVID-19 tests rises to a stunning 57 percent in Buenos Aires City.</p> <p>As a guideline, the World Health Organization has said 5 to 10% of COVID-19 tests should come out positive. Otherwise, countries are likely to be undertesting, leading to under-the-radar expansion of the disease which could lead to exponential escalation in a matter of weeks, as those infected fail to be isolated.</p> <h2><strong>High-profile cases</strong></h2> <p>Although individual stories of contagion are no more than anecdotal, the increasingly problematic figures came with a rise in high-profile cases as well.</p> <p>These included former Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal, one of the leaders of the opposition, as well as the Mayor of the province’s second-largest district, Martín Insaurralde of Lomas de Zamora, a delicate case due to his kidney and respiratory problems, as well as for being a former cancer patient.</p> <p>The scare among the political class has led to the cancellation of multiple trips and in-person meetings for everyone from President Alberto Fernández downwards, both due to the risks of contagion and due to rising public criticism that the country’s leaders were not taking the lockdown as seriously as they were enforcing it for the common man.</p> <h2><strong>Rolling back some freedoms</strong></h2> <p>Fernández did meet yesterday with Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof and BA City Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli (Mayor Rodríguez Larreta is in isolation after being in contact with a COVID-positive Vidal), and decided to backtrack on some of the freedoms extended over the last few weeks.</p> <p>Starting on Friday, public transport will only be available to workers deemed “essential”, and all other permits to use it will expire. Runners in BA city will also only be able to go out on certain days of the week, based on the numbers in their ID cards.</p> <p>Buenos Aires Province, however, is putting pressure on BA City to go much further, back to “Phase one”, in which most shops could not open and movement was even more closely limited (BA province workers commuting to their jobs in the city has been one of the sources of contagion for the province), but the city is resisting further tightening and nothing has been agreed on this front so far.</p> <h2><strong>Hammer worked, but dance is failing</strong></h2> <p>Behind the proposals to tighten back is a tacit admission that one of the goals of the lockdown was not achieved.</p> <p>The strong lockdown, which some describe as the “<a href="https://gettheessential.com/economy/2020/04/02/experts-discuss-how-to-lift-coronavirus-lockdown-restrictions-argentina">hammer</a>” phase in which cases are cut down as much as possible, putting the R number below 1 (meaning that each COVID-19 patient transmits the disease to one person or less on average), should have been quickly accompanied by a “dance” approach in which contact tracing, tests and public safety measures keep the virus from spreading while the lockdown is softened.</p> <p>Argentina’s test and tracing efforts, however, are proving to be too weak, even after three months of preparation, as the high test positivity numbers show. With not enough people tracing the contacts of those who have been demonstrably infected, the contagion cannot be stopped.</p> <p>As a result, Argentina’s COVID curve is still pointing upwards, even if it is still not moving up as fast as it did in Brazil, Chile or Peru, where lockdowns were softer or not respected. But the nature of exponential growth means that, as long as the curve is pointing upwards, the risks of disaster are still present.</p> <p>The comparison between Argentina, Uruguay and Chile&#8217;s curve is a good summary of the situation.</p> <img class="wp-image-10241 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/arg2.png" alt="Argentina controlled COVID-19 cases with its lockdown, but lack of tests meant contagion continued growing undetected" width="468" height="288" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/arg2.png 937w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/arg2-300x185.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/arg2-768x473.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/arg2-600x369.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 468px) 100vw, 468px" /> <img class="wp-image-10242 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/chile.png" alt="Chile has failed to control the COVID-19 pandemic with a very late lockdown" width="451" height="277" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/chile.png 924w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/chile-300x184.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/chile-768x471.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/chile-600x368.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 451px) 100vw, 451px" /> <img class="wp-image-10243 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/uruguay.png" alt="COVID-19 cases were extremely well controlled in Uruguay from day 1" width="466" height="294" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/uruguay.png 947w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/uruguay-300x189.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/uruguay-768x485.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/uruguay-600x379.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 466px) 100vw, 466px" /> <p>Chile has many more cases than Argentina (and the difference is even larger in per capita terms), but both curves are pointing in the same direction: upwards. Uruguay, meanwhile, controlled the spread of the disease rapidly, and its graph tracks much more closely with the ideal of the &#8220;hammer and the dance&#8221; model, which has also proven successful in East Asia and Europe, even for those who started with many more cases.</p> <img class="wp-image-10244 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/spain.png" alt="COVID-19 cases have slowed down dramatically in Spain" width="460" height="283" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/spain.png 921w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/spain-300x185.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/spain-768x473.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/spain-600x369.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 460px) 100vw, 460px" /> <p>This is why some Argentine experts are already calling for a &#8220;second hammer&#8221;, a 14-day strict quarantine for BA City and its outskirts, and probably also Chaco province, &#8220;while the test and tracing capacities are put into practice&#8221;, in the words of Córdoba Univerity&#8217;s School of Chemical Sciences&#8217;s <a href="https://twitter.com/rquiroga777/status/1271941273713291265">Rodrigo Quiroga</a>.</p> <h2>The economics of the lockdown</h2> <p>The proposal makes sense in terms of controlling the pandemic, but the question is whether Argentines are ready to go through another round of strict stay at home orders while the country&#8217;s recession turns into a depression with no end in sight.</p> <p>The government has implemented two aid packages worthy of mention: the IFE subsidy of 10,000 pesos per month for people with no other income, and the ATP assistance program that covers part of the salaries of some companies affected by the lockdown. But it has so far erred on the side of caution in terms of fiscal spending during the pandemic, fearing the inflationary effects of the inevitable lockdown money printing in a country where inflation is already quite high and public savings are near zero. So the broad support (and obedience) towards the lockdown in its early months is slowly wearing down, as people need to go out to find some money to survive, or else see their companies go under or their kids go hungry.</p> <p>Fernández&#8217;s team does not rule out expanding economic aid, but what&#8217;s sure is that it&#8217;s not looking to lift the lockdown as some of its more pro-market critics demand. &#8220;Look at what happened with Norway and Sweden. Sweden tried to stay open to privilege the economy, but ended up with more deaths and no economic benefit&#8221;, Fernández said yesterday in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKZeqTkOEXo">TV interview</a>.</p> <p>

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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.