Hailed as a model at the beginning of the pandemic, the world’s longest lockdown has not saved Argentina from coronavirus misery as cases and daily deaths continue to skyrocket
As Argentina enters yet another lockdown, it is teetering on the edge of the global top ten for coronavirus cases – and is one of only a handful of countries where the curve on almost all the statistical graphs is skyrocketing.
On Friday 28 August, president Alberto Fernandez informed the nation that a further three weeks of lockdown were necessary to “stop the virus spreading in order to stop the deaths… The problem is not only in AMBA; the problem is in the whole country.”
“AMBA” refers to Greater Buenos Aires, where more than a third of the 44.5 million Argentines live. It is here that a strict lockdown has been in force, with only occasional modifications, since March 20. For long periods people have been unable to leave the house except to shop for food or collect medicines. Even open-air recreation was banned for weeks.
Despite this, many businesses remain closed. Restaurants and bars can only offer a takeaway service. No indoor meetings of groups are permitted.
The rules have been in place for more than 164 days in parts of Buenos Aires. Nonetheless, even the president concedes, “We are a long way from resolving the problem in AMBA.”
As spring arrives in Argentina, the tourism season usually restarts. Prior to the pandemic, direct flights from the UK (as well as Europe and many US hubs) ensured the capital enjoyed a steady flow of tourists.
But Covid-19 and what is now the world’s longest lockdown has impacted every aspect of life in Buenos Aires.
Its celebrated cultural scene has imploded. All state-owned museums and galleries are closed. Tango classes, milongas (ballroom nights) and shows are closed. The annual Tango World Championships, which ran from August 26-30, was a virtual-only event.
The city’s 700 or so theatres, concert venues and cultural centres, 200 small magazines and thousands of street and circus performers are all on hold.
Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s great café societies and is a major dining hub. Porteños – residents of Buenos Aires – do not queue to buy plastic cups of latte or boxed sandwiches. They sit down to relax and chat, meeting friends and family in their local cafés and cheap and cheerful parrillas (steakhouses). A Mediterranean lifestyle, inherited from Italian and Spanish ancestors, is the norm – but not in lockdown, with devastating effect.
According to the Asociación de Hoteles Restaurantes, Confiterías y Cafeterías de la República Argentina (AHRCC), between 1,200 and 1,500 eating and drinking establishments have already permanently closed – and as many as 8,000 “are at the edge of an abyss”. Ten thousand people have already been laid off in the hospitality sector.
Turnover has already plunged by 80-90 per cent. Delivery services, which take a cut of 20-35 per cent of the retail price of food and drink, do little to help proprietors balance the books.
In fashionable Palermo, venerable establishments such as El Trapiche as well as upscale venues targeting younger drinkers and diners have shut their doors for good.
At the end of May the Gran Café Tortoni, founded in 1858 and Argentina’s most celebrated café, said it was turning over AR$1,000 (£10) a day. Even La Biela, in wealthy Recoleta, is struggling to survive.
Buenos Aires’ grandeur is already very much faded; it is now in danger of fading out as lockdown extends. Where other South American cities have ancient sites, historic palaces, beaches or other natural attractions, its chief heritage is its social and cultural life. If this is wiped out by Covid-19, there will be very little left to enjoy.
Argentina has weathered more economic crises than most other countries. But the pandemic has hit harder than any recent slumps. In 2001, when the currency crashed, tourists filled the empty tables.
The large informal economy has more or less collapsed. Mass unemployment could have dire consequences, not least of which is the fact that the private health insurance system which most people rely on is funded from salaries.
Back in March Argentina was widely praised for his swift response to the crisis. “You can recover from a drop in the GDP,” president Alberto Fernández declared, after implementing an early lockdown. “But you can’t recover from death.”
Matías de Cristóbal, director general of the Awasi luxury hotel group, laments the hubris. “For the first couple of months, the government enjoyed most people’s support. But poor communication skills and no notion of when cases might peak have eroded trust.
“The government compared itself favourably with Chile, Brazil and Peru, and even Europe, often using flawed data. They made a grave error in predicting a peak in April, then May and then June. They have bet on allowing the economy to collapse with the story that there’ll be many fewer deaths because the government is ‘on top of’ things and looking after us.”
Argentina has recorded 408,426 coronavirus cases to date. In the coming week, it will hop above Chile on the global ranking and there is every possibility it will soon pass Spain – one of the countries most affected by the pandemic.
The government’s official tally of death stands at 8,457 – far lower than many countries – but currently doubling every three weeks.
But, how accurate are these numbers when no more than ten thousand people are tested each day and in recent days more than 50 per cent of tests are coming back positive?
“The plaudits in April were premature,” says Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, a professor of social policy and Latin America expert at the University of East Anglia.
“Everybody was making policy up on the hoof and the initial lockdown there as elsewhere was meant to be a big policy statement.”
He points to the difference between public statements and life on the ground. “Anyone who has spent any time in Argentina knows how controlling the population’s movements is impossible. It’s anarchic at the best of times.”
The winter season, a large population of elderly people, and limited experience of coping with infectious diseases – compared with Brazil, which has had major outbreaks of Zika, dengue and malaria – all contribute to the problem.
“The average age of Covid deaths is well above 70 and there is certainly underreporting of deaths in this age group,” says professor Lloyd-Sherlock.
In recent weeks the virus has spread rapidly in provinces such as Jujuy in the northwestern Andes and Mendoza, a world-famous wine region. Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost province, is also an area of concern. For UK tour firms, these are the destinations travellers head for after sampling the cafés and streaks of Buenos Aires.
“Sadly the reality which Australia, New Zealand and now Argentina are seeing is that too severe a lockdown not only flattens the curve but also extends it,” says Edward Paine, managing director of regional specialist Last Frontiers.
“I would love Argentina to follow Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil’s example and open international borders, albeit with sensible precautions such as requiring a PCR test on arrival. The total solar eclipse in early December is a perfect opportunity for the country to stimulate the restart in tourism, a process that is so desperately needed to avoid widespread unemployment and more permanent damage to such an important sector of the economy.”
Approximately a tenth of the Argentine population works in the travel and tourism sector and it is estimated to generate as much as a tenth of national GDP. Most of the income is generated during the peak months between Christmas and March.
Fernandez’s Covid-19 measures were put in place to enable the country and its health service to get through the cold months, but as spring approaches international borders remain closed with no prospect of regular flights any time soon – firms are now not expecting foreign tourists in Argentina until the summer of 2021-22. It looks likely that this year the “peak” season for tourism will be replaced by a peak in Covid-19 cases.