If a little bit of power is enough to show how someone really is, a global pandemic strips states as they are, shading light on their failings: transparency in the case of China, a smooth coordination between the national and the sub-national powers in Italy, or a guaranteed access to medical assistance for every citizen in the United States, to name a few. Argentina does not have an authoritarian China-alike system, nor the unpractical bureaucracy of Italy, and the public hospitals are open for everyone, as opposed to the US. So, what are the problems that Argentina is facing? What is the reason why the end of the lockdown is being constantly postponed, when countries like Spain or Belgium are already starting to regain some kind of normality?
by Nicolás Fuster
After taking office last December and as soon as the summer holidays ended in February, the government of Argentina had a rather abrupt end of the honeymoon. The pandemic had started on the other side of the globe. Then, it appeared in Europe. But for some reason, the news of the sudden arrival took the Argentine authorities by surprise. ‘I did not believe that the virus would arrive this soon’, the Minister of Health stated on the 9th of March.
Ten days later, the President, Alberto Fernández, ordered a total quarantine. The decision found a wide consensus among the oppositions and the citizens, that used social media to foster the observance of the quarantine through the hashtag #QuedateEnCasa (‘Stay home’). Like people in many other countries, Argentines learnt to bake bread and cook cakes through Instagram and several famous musicians such as Pedro Aznar and Kevin Johansen performed live from their houses through Instagram or Facebook to help soothe the situation. Some of these home-made concerts reached peaks of almost 190.000 visualizations. As days went by, people also used social media, mainly through the hashtag #ArgentinaAplaude on Twitter, to organise for signing the national hymn and to cheer the medical staff with massive applauses during the evenings.
Mr. Fernández’s image was remarkably high, the NYTimes reported. He held several press conferences together with the mayor of Buenos Aires, who belongs to an opposition party, and this dialogue and agreement between them was appreciated by the citizenry, even if the long-term polarization does not seem to disappear. Following a statement to the governments by the UNHR High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, on the health and security of prisoners, by the end of April the news reported that because of COVID-19, some prisoners could leave the penitentiaries, which are often overcrowded, and which hygiene conditions are extremely poor. The possibility of giving house arrest to a number of prisoners, many of which were sex offenders and would have been sent close to their victims, if not the very same house, triggered a tough answer from the public opinion, and a strong cacerolazo (pot banging, an Argentine protesting method emerged during the crisis of 2001) was heard in the main cities on the 30th of April. The response was truly intense, and Human Rights Watch stated that despite the reaction was understandable, sending prisoners to their places as a temporary measure does not mean to release them.
Despite the calm style of the President, the sting of many announcements of the quarantine being extended started to unsettle many. Argentina has almost a half of its workers in the informal sector, and a number of them are day laborers, meaning that they buy provisions with their meagre daily earning. After a good initial answer to the measures by the authorities, it started to be clear that the quarantine was not an option for many, especially in the suburbs.
Argentina has a rather openness tradition and could not be labelled as a xenophobic country. However, due to COVID-19 (and to confused people), aggressions towards Asians and Italians were reported. Moreover, Argentines either infected or suspected to be infected received threatening messages through social media, where fake profiles were created in order to bully and insult some of the presumed infected.
Teachers are laboriously organising classes through videos, WhatsApp and online platforms.
In order to supply the lack of classes, the Government sent a bill to the Congress for allowing teaching from afar. The bill was easily approved by the lower house and will be soon voted in the Senate. In April, the Ministry of Education announced the distribution of booklets as teaching material, co-financed with UNICEF, for students in vulnerable situations. Few days later, Carla Carrizo, an opposition MP, noticed that the booklets had a strong political content in favour of the national Government and detrimental to the other parties. 18 million booklets, that costed around € 4.000.000. “The first one to be educated should be the Ministry of Education. Instead of indoctrinating kids, we should be discussing how to raise critical minds”, Mrs Carrizo said. This was rejected by some media, for instance in this article.
Like in other countries, the Argentine authorities launched an app for mobile phones, called CuidAr (‘To take care’, with a capital A that then combines ‘to take care’ with Argentina). The app has a triple function: allowing to self-diagnose, tracking the user and processing the circulation permission. At the beginning it was told that the app would be mandatory, later it was told that it would be mandatory in some provinces. This provoked some criticisms from experts, especially on Twitter. One of these, programmer and activist Javier Smaldone, said that the Government has not yet provided the source code nor the back-end in the server. Another IT expert, Maximiliano Firtman, argued that apart from not working well, the app lacks of the basic security standards: it is rather easy to pretend to be someone else, there is no option to edit nor revise the information and the Government could share the data with third parts, among other points. Eventually, the authorities decided not to make the app mandatory, but to leave it as it is.
During the last press conference where a new extension of the quarantine was announced, Mr Fernández said that ‘the quarantine will last for as long as needed’. When asked about the anxiety and anguish the lockdown could have on the people, the President, visibly irritated, replied that ‘what is distressing is getting infected’. This unleashed the controversy over the emotional aspect of the people during lockdown, the stress of the uncertainty of workers and owners of SMEs or the women who suffer domestic violence.
New cases of SARS-CoV-2 were recently reported in the so-called villas, the Argentine equivalent to Brazilian favelas, such as Villa Itatí, in the suburb of Buenos Aires, where 1/10 tests were positive. Within the capital city, this article shows that the cases of COVID-19 in the precarious settlements is 1/3 of the total cases. There is a number of extremely poor urban areas, where families live in the very same room, where social distancing is not an option, where alcohol hand gel is not a widely known item.
By mid-April, the WHO placed Argentina among the countries with less tests for COVID-19.
If, as argued, the first reaction of the authorities was appropriate, the last movements show some idea of improvisation. This sheds light on the fact that the decision of the quarantine should have been taken with a reopening plan, that after two months the Government does not seem to have.
The lockdown and the delicate economic situation of the country, that has a 54 percent annual inflation rate, hit the most vulnerable. As soon as the quarantine started, Mosquito Sancineto, an actor and drama teacher of the underground scene of Avenida Corrientes -the porteña Broadway Av.-, set up Artistas Solidarios (Caring Artists), an NGO that receives donations, prepares bags with several items such as food for two weeks and cleaning products and distributes them among artists, that cannot work because of COVID-19.
Adriana Yasky, who is in charge of the logistics, says: ‘We have a bank account and we receive donations of $ 500 or $ 1.000 (€ 5 / € 10), sometimes more. We asked a nutritionist to prepare a list of foodstuffs, so we know that what we provide is healthy. We also give bleach and soap. In addition, we provide psychological support by volunteer professionals. A little idea of Mosquito is getting to be noticed thanks to social media: many famous artists such as Carla Peterson, who has over one million followers on Instagram, did a live with us. Others, like cartoonist Maitena, sent us their support. We have been contacted by other artists in the rest of the country who want to help, hence Artistas Solidarios is now working also in Mar del Plata. We use social media for everything: for asking for donations, for letting artists know that we are here to help. I am the one who reads the messages, then I make a table of the distribution, according to the requests of the week. A group goes to the wholesale supermarket and prepare the bags, and the guys with the cars deliver them. Donations are precious so we must spend wisely. We were lucky to find volunteers that, because of their jobs, hold the circulation permission! We deliver more than 100 bags each Saturday, and the number is increasing and increasing. All of this would be impossible without social media and WhatsApp.”
On the 3rd of June 2015, there was the first massive demonstration against violence against women in Argentina, where Twitter, Facebook and Instagram played a role under the slogan #NiUnaMenos (‘Not one less’). Since then, the movement increased and crossed borders in Argentina and Latin America. It also arrived in Spain and Italy, under the slogan #NonUnaDiMeno. After five years of the first rally in Argentina, on this #3J digital platforms were essential again: activists launched a ruidazo (‘big noise’) mainly on Twitter and Instagram.
So far, Argentines have followed the rules and have also shown creativity and respect. Now, the improvisation phase should be over. If politics have a vision, it ought to perform like actors do after months of rehearsing, when they know what the next scene will be like, when and how the play is going to finish.
About the author
Nicolás Fuster holds a BA in Politics and International Relations (University of Rome). He is currently writing his MSc thesis on voters of populist parties (University of Amsterdam). He intermittently writes for Argentine and Spanish newspapers.