Argentina will today enter a strict nine-day period of confinement as it grapples with the “worst moment” yet of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to President Alberto Fernández.
"We must accept that we are in a critical moment," said the president in a televised speech on Thursday as he announced sweeping new restrictions.
The announcement came in the wake of a huge surge of infections over the past week, with daily caseloads regularly surpassing 30,000.
A total of 3,482,512 people have now been infected with Covid-19 in Argentina since the start of the pandemic, which has claimed 73,391 lives.
“We must come together to overcome this catastrophe,” warned Fernández in his address to the nation.
Only businesses deemed essential, such as supermarkets and grocery shops, will remain open during the nine-day lockdown. In-person classes will be suspended at schools, while restaurants will only be able to open for home delivery and pick-up services.
Citizens will only be allowed to circulate close to their homes between the hours of 6am and 6pm, with all in-person social, economic, educational, religious and sporting activities banned.
These new restrictions will be similar to ones imposed a year ago at the start of the pandemic to try to relieve the overburdened healthcare system.
"The measures will be in force from zero hours on May 22 to midnight on May 30," said Fernández, who pointed out that only three of the nine are working days, given there are holidays on May 24 and 25 (the former was restored by the government hours earlier).
From May 31, existing restrictions will be restored, with a new lockdown put in place for the weekend of June 5 and 6, he added.
The president said that all citizens should take the virus crisis seriously, pointing out that it was a “critical” moment and that the country must not “naturalise so much tragedy.”
On Friday Argentina recorded 695 more deaths from Covid. Over the past seven days it has seen an average of around 27,000 new cases and nearly 500 fatalities per day.
“Today, the problem is very serious,” said Fernández.
Intensive care units were at 73.1 percent capacity nationwide, rising to 76.4 percent in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA), where the majority of cases have been recorded.
“I am aware that these restrictions create difficulties. Faced with this reality, there is no choice but to choose the preservation of life,” he argued. “I am not going to accept that this amount of contagion and deaths be naturalised.”
Fernández also confirmed the arrival of some four million Covid-19 AstraZeneca vaccines this month, mainly from Mexico, the result of a co-production effort between the two countries. Praising the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president also said another million Sputnik vaccines from Moscow would arrive soon.
About 18.7 percent of Argentina’s 45 million citizens have received at least one shot while just 4.8 percent are considered fully vaccinated.
The president also said the national government would continue to support companies and individuals facing financial strain, offering aid and subsidies that would in part be funded by his administration’s so-called ‘wealth tax,’ a capital levy on individuals with large fortunes and the increase in tax revenue so far this year. Healthcare workers are to be given extra pay, while funding for food stamp and child support schemes will also be boosted.
Additional social spending tied to the latest Covid wave – and not anticipated in the 2021 budget – will cost 480 billion pesos (US$5.1 billion), or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the presidential press office.
Eight out of 10 Argentines say the pandemic is affecting their personal financial situation, according to a poll by Buenos Aires-based consulting firm Poliarquía conducted between May 6 and 7. The poll shows that 48 percent of Argentines don’t approve of Fernández’s management of the health crisis.
'We must end the confusion'
Fernández called on citizens to “redouble” their efforts against the virus and said that while the restrictions he had imposed back in April “had a positive impact in the first weeks,” cases had increased over the past several days.
In a nod to the row between the National and Buenos Aires City governments over the continuation of in-person classes at schools – which City Hall successfully challenged in the Supreme Court – Fernández said that “it is evident that there were decisions that we did not share – some of which were judicially endorsed and weakened the forceful decisions that we had proposed to control a critical situation."
The Peronist leader said there was no margin of error this time around. "We must end the confusion. A country cannot have 24 health strategies. What happens in each province or in the Capital, then impacts upon the entire country. The virus does not recognise limits or jurisdictions," he remarked.
Speaking at a later press conference, City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta said he would accompany the president’s measures.
"The cases that had begun to decline rose again a week ago. We are very concerned. The occupancy of the intensive care system in the City's public system is at 83 percent," he said.
The opposition leader said that while schools would always be the last thing his administration would close, but confirmed that in-person classes next week would be postponed.
“Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week children will not have classes. But as for us every day counts, they will recover them in December," said Rodríguez Larreta.
"It is very difficult for me to take this type of measure, but we are convinced that it is what has to be done," said the City leader.
City Education Minister Soledad Acuña confirmed Friday that classes would be suspended but said the school calendar would be extended until almost Christmas (December 22) in order to recover the lost days.
Speaking on Luis Majul’s Radio Rivadavia programme Esta Mañana, the minister also commented: "The damage done to children last year was enormous. We’re going to try to defend classroom education."
Asked why she had acceded to this interruption, Acuña replied: "We always said that until everything was closed down, the schools would not close."
Rodríguez Larreta confirmed that playgrounds in squares and parks would be closed, with 3,000 “prevention agents” set to patrol the streets to ensure restrictions were followed. He also said 71 road access points to the capital would be closed, with checkpoints tightened at those that remain open and at underground Subte stations.
In a decision that may spark criticism from Juntos por el Cambio hardliners and libertarians, he also announced that 5,000 staff from City Hall would tour apartment blocks to check that common spaces were not in use, including gyms, parrillas and meeting halls.
Warning that infections were occurring regularly at social gatherings, he encouraged residents to alert the authorities if they became aware of clandestine parties or meetings between groups in private homes.
The return to a severe lockdown adds more challenges to Argentina’s already fragile economic recovery ahead of mid-term elections at the end of the year. Economic activity shrank in February and March from the previous months, while a recent ban on meat exports triggered a strike by farm groups. Inflation is accelerating.
Argentina’s economy contracted nearly 10 percent last year due in part to the strict lockdown.