BUENOS AIRES – Buenos Aires, the Argentine city hardest hit by the coronavirus, will allow the public starting Monday to leave their homes to take walks or jog, thus beginning a new phase in the national quarantine which, after two-and-a-half months in effect is being observed more laxly across much of the rest of the country, where the spread of the virus is under better control.
According to the latest official figures, since March 3, when the first coronavirus case was reported here, 22,794 people have become infected, of whom 7,305 are deemed to have “recovered” and 670 have died.
For several weeks now the focus has been on the capital and the populous urban area surrounding it, with 11,010 cases in Buenos Aires itself and 8,700 cases in the surrounding area, although the northern Chaco region is in third place among the provinces with 1,045 cases. All three areas are still seeing newly confirmed cases each day.
The central city of Cordoba and certain urban nuclei in the far-southern provinces of Rio Negro and Chubut are also still experiencing community spread of the virus, which sometimes causes the potentially deadly COVID-19 pneumonia, especially among the elderly or those with various comorbidities but also among otherwise healthy young adults.
In all these zones, the social isolation measures imposed by the Alberto Fernandez government on March 20 will remain in effect until at least June 28, after the latest extension of the quarantine initiated on Monday, while the country’s other 18 provinces are now entering into a phase of greater economic and social reopening.
“In recent days, I visited provinces where the economy began to reactivate itself in compliance with the health protocols. Those provinces, among other things, on Tuesday will begin the phase of social distancing. They achieved this thanks to the fact that the took care of one another. Let’s continue to follow their example,” the president wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening.
In those zones, people will be able to circulate, work and go about their daily activities while maintaining precautionary health measures, but certain activities – such as gatherings of more than 10 people – will remain curtailed and the national borders will remain closed, except for special flights, until Sept. 1.
The Buenos Aires metro area, which is governed by opposition leader Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, and the 40 municipalities surrounding the capital, all of them belonging to Buenos Aires province governed by government-backing Axel Kicillof, contain more than 14 million people, a third of Argentina’s population, and together constitute the country’s major industrial zone.
Starting on Monday, and after growing demands to ease the quarantine – Buenos Aires residents will be able to go out in the evening to walk, run or ride bicycles in the parks and plazas near their homes without having to wear facemasks. This after parental outings with children were also approved starting last weekend.
In addition, some stores – such as clothing and shoe stores – will be allowed to reopen, provided they continue abiding by social distancing requirements, but physical attendance at religious ceremonies and services will still not be allowed, those services being broadcast online for the faithful along with otherwise heavily attended cultural events.
Meanwhile, in the urban belt around the capital, aside from allowing essential activities, the quarantine will remain rigidly in effect, especially in the slums, where economic and social difficulties combine with overcrowding and lack of access to basic services like potable water.
In the rest of the large province, there are towns without any infections where life is proceeding relatively normally.
The longer the quarantine drags on, the more criticism comes from the political opposition over the harm it is doing to the already weakened economy, which has been in recession for two years, at the same time that the government is saying that the peak of the infection and fatality curves has not yet been reached and thus the isolation policy must be maintained to prevent the collapse – or overwhelming – of the health care system.
This past weekend, Cabinet chief Santiago Cafiero said that if the pandemic would have occurred during Mauricio Macri’s presidency (2015-2019) there would have been “a catastrophe,” a statement that led the Republican Proposal (PRO) party of the former president to issue a statement in his defense.
The PRO said that Macri “right from the start would have followed the international recommendation … to find the virus by more testing, to trace and isolate possible foci of contagion,” and it accused the current government of taking advantage of the pandemic to “weaken institutions … (and) avoid the oversight of Congress.”
In addition to extending the quarantine in Buenos Aires, the government is also trying desperately to restructure almost $70 billion in foreign debt with its international creditors, a move that the government claims will – once and for all – avoid a new default on debt payments that would further complicate the economic outlook.
Analysts consulted by the Central Bank forecast for this year a plunge in the GDP of 9.5 percent which – added to worsening inflation, the rise in poverty and ongoing inequalities in the exchange markets, all of which predate the pandemic – has worsened the economic outlook and spurred the government to disburse social aid funding equivalent to some 2.6 percent of the GDP.
Through it all, Fernandez is remaining publicly optimistic and last Friday he said that if the debt problem were to be resolved, Argentina’s economic takeoff would be “magnificent.”