BUENOS AIRES – Argentina begins on Monday yet another extension of its nationwide coronavirus quarantine, and it will mark six months under lockdown on Sept. 20 as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, putting the healthcare system under severe pressure.
“The situation is not better, it’s not the same, it’s worse,” the governor of Buenos Aires province, Axel Kicillof, said on Monday.
With more than 408,000 confirmed cases, Argentina has risen to 11th place worldwide in the COVID-19 ranking of countries, just a short step from the “Top 10,” as it continues to adhere to one of the world’s longest quarantines, although according to what one can see on the streets people are not really strictly complying with the restrictions.
The country, however, has registered a lower lethality index due to the virus – only 2.1 percent, compared to the 3.5 percent average across the globe. Nevertheless, 8,498 people have died from COVID-19 so far over the past six months, while 301,195 people have been diagnosed with the disease but have recovered.
The restrictive measures that were extended on Monday vary according to the health situation in the different districts in Argentina in what has proven to be an ongoing debate over how the public is feeling after so many months of quarantine and the urgency of getting people back to work, given the heavy impact the pandemic has had on the economy, which over the past two years has been hard-hit by recession.
The province of Buenos Aires has been the epicenter of the pandemic in Argentina, with more than 60 percent of the country’s confirmed cases, and although capital region authorities decided to tighten the restrictions in several cities, just like other districts have done, the capital itself – which finds itself on a “plateau” in terms of the infection curve – is moving toward reopening various businesses, such as open-air bars and restaurants, along with other activities.
The Buenos Aires metro area, which includes the capital and the heavily populated periphery with some 14 million people – the most densely populated area in the country – has seen the largest number of coronavirus cases, but in recent weeks warning lights have been flashing due to the growth in cases in the outlying provinces.
Several districts have decided to tighten their quarantine restrictions in certain zones where COVID-19 cases have escalated in a bid to avoid seeing their healthcare systems overwhelmed. Some regions in the provinces of Jujuy in the northwest and Rio Negro in the south have already been experiencing problems in treating the rising number of cases.
Health authorities detected community spread in 18 of the country’s 24 districts and, although they authorized gatherings of up to 10 people in the open air, they have urged the public to maintain social distancing to try and keep the number of infections in check.
Argentina President Alberto Fernandez warned that if people continue to circulate as they have been “there is no health care system that can handle it.”
A month-and-a-half ago, 7 percent of the newly detected COVID-19 cases each day were in the provinces and now that percentage has increased fivefold and stands at 37 percent, according to Health Access Secretary Carla Vizzotti.
The government decided to change its messaging policy regarding the pandemic and Fernandez announced the extension of the quarantine via a missive disseminated on the social networks.
Amid growing political tension with the opposition, Fernandez has avoided – as on all other occasions – sitting down at the table with Buenos Aires Gov. Kicillof and the capital mayor, opposition figure Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, to report on the health measures.
The strategies being pursued in the capital itself and in Buenos Aires province are diverging more and more.
The health minister of the city of Buenos Aires, Fernan Quiros, said on Monday that the capital has “passed the worst point, which was at the beginning of August” and starting on Monday authorities decided to reopen open-air bars and restaurants and to reactivate the construction sector.
On the other hand, the Buenos Aires governor was categorical in warning that “the virus is crossing” the General Paz highway separating the capital from the rest of the province and “the epidemiological situation in the Buenos Aires Metro Area is one of tremendously fragile stability. A rising trend has become established and the truth is that the situation is not better, it’s not the same, it’s worse.”
“In this situation, we can’t have more openings. It’s a mistake and we don’t agree with that. What we can do it try to stabilize things, because we can’t risk losing in five days what it’s taken five months to achieve,” said Kicillof in reporting on Monday on the prevailing restrictions in the country’s richest and most populated province.
“We’re all anxious, we’re all fed up, because this situation is extremely complicated. The virus is winning and we still don’t have a vaccine or any other options,” said the Peronist governor in explaining that the restrictive measures do not mean “a loss of freedom but a gain in health.”
The differences among the districts become more acute each day and in some cases they are translating into strict controls along the borders between the districts, with some dramatic cases arising like the one of a father who could not enter Cordoba province to say a last goodbye to his daughter terminally ill with cancer who died a few days later.
The worsening of the pandemic in Argentina is reflected in the high number of people currently in intensive care, a figure that grows each week and currently stands at 2,232. Tension is rising during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, with the ICU bed occupancy rate at 60.6 percent on the national level and 68.5 percent in the Buenos Aires Metro Area.
The situation is having a significant impact on health care personnel – 6 percent of the diagnosed COVID-19 cases are health care workers – and this was highlighted on Sunday in an emotional tribute at the Buenos Aires Obelisk to a doctor in the state emergency medical system who died from COVID-19, while his colleagues loudly and emotionally applauded his efforts to help his patients and sounded the sirens of ambulances that had gathered at the site.