BUENOS AIRES – Mate, a highly caffeinated brew that most Argentines drink daily, is traditionally consumed in a group. Everyone drinks from the same gourd, using a single metal straw known as a “bombilla,” in a ritual now threatened by COVID-19.
Eduardo Lopez, a member of the panel of experts created by the Argentina government to formulate a response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, said that the committee will “strongly urge” the adoption of social distancing as a way to curb the spread of the illness.
Argentina has 34 confirmed cases of infection and the illness is blamed for two deaths.
“Avoid the kiss on the cheek or the handshake, or reduce the socialization of mate,” Lopez said this week.
Pablo Bonvehi, an epidemiologist, told EFE he agrees with the recommendation, acknowledging that it will be difficult to put into practice.
“This a cultural question of many years and has to with social aspects. Getting together to study, to work, and the sharing of the beverage is something very ingrained and as such, not easy to reverse,” he said.
Even so, Bonvehi was emphatic that “at this time, the sharing of mate must be suspended temporarily.”
“It’s not that you can’t drink mate, it’s the matter of sharing it. We must look for new ways to drink mate in groups, but without sharing the utensils, basically the bombilla, which is what could potentially transmit the virus,” he said.
Reinventing the mate ritual is a challenge for both consumers and the mate business.
Disposable bombillas exist, but merchant Leandro Mejide told EFE that most people don’t use them, as “here in Argentina, each person has his or her mate and bombilla.”
Mejide, who has a shop selling mate and mate accessories in San Telmo, a neighborhood of Buenos Aires popular with tourists, said that while sales haven’t declined yet, he expects a downturn soon.
“Up until a week or 10 days ago, I let any tourist in my shop who wanted to try mate drink from mine, but now we are taking certain steps,” he said.
Under the current conditions, Mejide said, “it’s not advisable to share mate” except at home with family.
Others, however, are not willing to restrict the communal ritual to that degree.
Buenos Aires resident Jonathan Videla said that the only change he plans to make is to be more selective.
“I’m not afraid, but I do take precautions and mate is something to be done with intimates. It’s not like I will walk up to some random place and drink mate,” he said while sharing mate with a female companion at Lezama Park, a favorite spot for mate and conversation on sunny days.
Argentina’s health minister Fernan Quiros said on Thursday that in the face of a pandemic, people have to adjust their habits.
“The way we greet someone, the sharing of mate, are all changes we necessarily have to make,” he said.