THE WEEK IN CORONAVIRUS
At press time there were a total of 3,607 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 176 deaths, as compared to 2,758 cases and 129 deaths the previous Friday. Tomorrow, President Alberto Fernández will announce another fortnight for the nationwide quarantine which commenced on March 20. The week started with online sales, medical consultations, registry offices and insurance being freed from quarantine, as announced just before the previous weekend. As from Monday both the deposit and withdrawal of foreign currency was permitted in banks, which was to have its consequences for money markets during the week (see below). Monday also saw the latest economic relief measures – state payment of half of all private-sector salaries in firms hit by the pandemic up to two minimum wages (33,750 pesos) and credits of up to 150,000 pesos at zero interest rates for the self-employed. Around 420,000 companies applied for wage assistance in the following three days with 186,000 requests approved. Midweek was largely taken up with various anticipations of the presidential announcements expected for last night (with the auto industry, public works, lawyers and accountants the favoured sectors for easing the lockdown) while yesterday saw the start of random spot checking on public transport, thanks to the arrival of 170,000 serological kits from China (to place this figure in perspective, the slower but more reliable PCR tests had totalled 34,568 up to that point).
DEBT, DEFAULT AND DEADLINES
Following the April 16 debt offer to creditors presented by Economy Minister Matías Guzmán, two deadlines emerged last week as the clock started ticking towards default. The government’s refusal to pay interest to the tune of US$503 million on three Global bonds last Wednesday effectively sets May 22 as the date Argentina would fall into default at the end of a 30-day grace period, which would also mean a cross default a month later requiring the payment of all other bonds to be advanced. The same day the Economy Ministry brought this deadline a fortnight ahead by confirming that bondholders under foreign jurisdiction had until May 8 to accept the April 16 offer while the potential default threatened to mushroom with Guzmán huddling with his provincial counterparts on Thursday evening to coordinate debt strategy. The three main groups of bondholders rejected the offer in the course of the week.
MARKETS RUMBLE ON
The parallel exchange rate for the dollar yesterday reached 120 pesos after entering three-digit territory in the previous week, far above the official exchange rate (68.25 pesos in Banco Nación), to close a volatile week, especially its second half. Rumours that the government would tighten capital controls or even freeze bank accounts were rife but the week ended with a 25 percent ceiling on foreign currency in investment funds (decided Thursday) as the only innovation. Country risk closed the week above 4,000 points at 4,068 after closing the previous week below 3,500 at 3,479 as the government refused to budge from its April 16 offer to creditors, thus bringing default closer.
THIS WEEK IN CORRUPTION...
Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla asked the courts to grant house arrest to former Transport secretary Ricardo Jaime (serving a 10-year sentence for corruption) but the request made little headway against strong protests, especially by those seeing him as responsible for the 52-death Once rail tragedy in 2012 along with the Juntos por el Cambio opposition, and the indifference of President Alberto Fernández. On Tuesday the Federal Criminal Cassation Court ruled against the request. Pietragalla based his case (first presented on April 17) on the recommendation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH, in its Spanish acronym) that alternatives to prison be sought during the pandemic, also apparently assuming that Jaime was merely remanded in custody and not convicted, but the Tuesday court ruling stated that granting the request would violate international pacts against corruption.
Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa has summoned all caucus chiefs to attend personally a meeting next Monday to define the session whereby the numerous presidential emergency decrees of recent weeks could be legislatively ratified. His move was seen as a reaction to the plans of Juntos por el Cambio opposition deputies to converge on the capital next Tuesday to press for a conventional session despite the limitations of the coronavirus quarantine. Meanwhile Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (eager for approval of the wealth tax bill launched by her son Máximo) continued to press the Supreme Court for a decision on her request to approve digital Senate sessions outside the Congress building, even though legal experts pointed out that not only were there no constitutional barriers but that it would be unconstitutional for the judicial branch to intervene in the legislative. At press time last night the Supreme Court was reported as about to rule against her.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
The first microscopic images of coronavirus SARS-Cov2 were presented on Wednesday by specialists from the Malbrán Institute who had already deciphered the genome of the virus and Conicet national research council scientists. "Our scientists are part of history, said Health Minister Ginés González García proudly. While the toll of the microscopic pathogen nears marks of three million infected and 200,000 dead worldwide, it has caused an unprecedented and seemingly endless quarantine in Argentina.
The spotlight has fallen on nursing homes for the elderly after a proliferation of coronavirus cases (including 19 in one Belgrano home) which led to them being described as “time-bombs” with City Hall mobilising 80 inspectors as from Thursday in order to check out the 478 homes within its jurisdiction containing around 25,000 senior citizens while also ordering tests for all their employees. In Córdoba a home was closed down altogether when two of its inmates died within two days. Earlier in the week those aged over 70 had also been a centre of media attention after their outcry gradually diluted an April 17 announcement by City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta that those in that age-group would not be allowed to leave their homes without municipal permission, subsequently downscaled to being neither compulsory nor enforceable by any punishment in the face of protests that the measure was “discriminatory.” On Monday Administrative Litigation Court judge Lisandro Fastman ruled the move “unconstitutional” and the next day City Hall said it would not appeal.
LES LUTHIERS LOSES MUNDSTOCK
Cultured comic Marcos Mundstock (1942-2020), a member of the unique Les Luthiers whose creativity was a prime factor in that ensemble adding a musical and sophisticated note to Argentine humour, succumbed to cancer last Wednesday.