COVID strategy shows cracks after failed second lockdown

23rd July 2020

By Ignacio Portes

COVID strategy shows cracks after failed second lockdown

After a start that looked comparatively promising for Argentina, with an early lockdown initially containing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s public health strategy is starting to show underlying cracks.

Insufficient tests, tracing and isolation from day one, an unrelenting economic crisis, and a growing ineffectiveness of restrictions amid increased social tiredness and relaxation of social distancing norms, have combined to create a scenario in which cases and deaths have continued to rise despite the return to a “Phase One” hard lockdown in Buenos Aires earlier this month, which was lifted after 15 days showing only mild results in terms of containment.

</p> <h2>Exponential growth</h2> <p>The latest <a href="https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/argentina">countrywide figures</a> have raised many red flags, suggesting that the virus could be close to overwhelming the country after four months of fight. Daily new cases, which all specialists agree are under-counted, are printing new records every day, and have doubled over the last month.</p> <img class="wp-image-10506 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/cases.png" alt="Detected COVID-19 cases in Argentina" width="684" height="369" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/cases.png 914w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/cases-300x162.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/cases-768x414.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/cases-600x324.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 684px) 100vw, 684px" /> <p>Now at nearly 6,000 new infections per day, the figures are not too far from what Italy and Spain, both with a similar population than Argentina, started to post in the build up to their respective health care collapse. Even if the Mediterranean countries, who detected around 50 percent more cases than Argentina at their peak, were under-counting at the time due to their unpreparedness, the same can still be said of Argentina today.</p> <p>Daily deaths, meanwhile, are started to be counted in the hundreds.</p> <img class="wp-image-10507 aligncenter" src="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/deaths.png" alt="Reportes COVID-19 deaths in Argentina" width="681" height="375" srcset="https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/deaths.png 894w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/deaths-300x165.png 300w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/deaths-768x422.png 768w, https://gettheessential.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/deaths-600x330.png 600w" sizes="(max-width: 681px) 100vw, 681px" /> <p>Argentina, the 32nd country in terms of world population rankings, has hovered around the 10th position in terms of daily reported COVID-19 deaths throughout the week.</p> <p>The government, which was optimistic about the strong two-week Buenos Aires lockdown containing the spread, initially argued that part of the spike seen this week was explained by a technical outage in the system that counts Argentine cases, which led to some delayed loading over the weekend that inflated the subsequent daily totals. But by this point this seems to have had a marginal effect at best, and experts advising the government admit that cases are still on a steep rise regardless of those factors.</p> <p>Earlier today, Public Health Minister Ginés González García <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/gines-gonzalez-garcia-estoy-preocupado-crei-iban-nid2403043">said</a> he is &#8220;worried&#8221; because &#8220;I believed numbers would start to go down with the latest lockdown, but evidently it did not have the same effect as the previous one&#8221;.</p> <h2><strong>Running out of options</strong></h2> <p>Authorities now have a massive problem in their hands. After four months of alternating between hard and soft lockdowns in Buenos Aires, and with the Economy Ministry reluctant of increasing money printing to support closed businesses, quarantined freelancers, and the desperately unemployed, there&#8217;s fear that another round of lockdown tightening might not do much to stop contagion anymore.</p> <p>The latest mobility figures suggest that compliance with this month&#8217;s two-week strong lockdown in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area was <a href="https://twitter.com/mmbarrionuevo/status/1286028346586017792">markedly lower</a> than the previous one in March and April. According to data analyst Martín Barrionuevo, who is part of the Peronist party, &#8220;(this week&#8217;s) flexibilization seems to have merely formalized what was already taking place in the streets.&#8221;</p> <p>Indeed, the streets of Buenos Aires had several shops open despite not being authorized during the lockdown, especially outside of the city center. In downtown Buenos Aires, compliance with the restrictions remains relatively high, avoiding the worst congestion scenarios for public transport and office buildings. But overall, compliance is trending lower, so the government is trying to not get left behind with restrictions that aren&#8217;t obeyed.</p> <p>“If you analyze the easing that was authorized, it was a very cautious approach, it only included activities that do not increase risks significantly unless people ignore their social responsibilities. This does not mean we want to blame people, we know they were exhausted and needed to work,” Eduardo López, a member of Alberto Fernández’s COVID-19 advisers, said yesterday.</p> <h2>Looking forward</h2> <p>The question is now what options remain available to fight back if the spread of the virus continues, with no sign pointing to a potential trend change for the moment.</p> <p>According to Fabricio Ballarini, a CONICET research institute biologist, &#8220;after 120 days of lockdown it is indispensable to build strategies and protocols that allow for safe family encounters. Otherwise people will keep meeting clandestinely and without information. Preserving mental health is important.&#8221;</p> <p>Messaging around better use of masks, social distancing and prevention are also being discussed as possibilities, but authorities, especially in Buenos Aires Province, have not ruled out a new round of strict lockdowns if needed.</p> <p>Although cases have continued to go up significantly, the national government still argues that the latest lockdown has been useful in terms of slowing down the occupation of hospital beds. Individual reports of clinics with capacity problems are not unheard of, but overall official figures say the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area has around two thirds of its intensive care units occupied. Authorities in Buenos Aires Province are working to reconvert some pediatric units (largely unused as the pandemic mostly spares children) into units for adults in order to squeeze a bit more capacity out of the system, anticipating that cases will continue to grow.</p> <h2>Acknowledging errors</h2> <p>Although the government&#8217;s strategy with the pandemic remains popular, and scientists and experts are still widely supported according to polls, some of them have acknowledged errors in their strategy over the last few days.</p> <p>&#8220;We did not recognize quickly enough the big issue with this virus, which is its long incubation period and the unusually large amount of asymptomatic cases it creates. This led to other mistakes, like thinking that it was only a matter of making sure hospitals were not saturated. But tests should have been incremented quicker, and masks should have been adopted since the beginning, as the Asian societies which better responded to the pandemic taught us,&#8221; Ernesto Reznik, an Argentine biologist and COVID researcher <a href="https://www.infobae.com/salud/2020/07/23/quien-es-ernesto-resnik-el-cientifico-que-discutio-con-juan-pablo-varsky/">said</a> this week.</p> <p>&#8220;Much of what we did has served the purpose of gaining time and improving containment and treatment protocols. We are in better shape than we could have been, but the end is still not near.&#8221;</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.