Argentina’s national, regional and municipal governments are tightening health and sanitary measures against Covid-19 amid concerns over the arrival of new variants of the virus in the country.
With neighbouring nations – including Brazil, Chile and Uruguay – all experiencing an uptick in infection rates, officials in the Alberto Fernández administration this week called on citizens to take greater care, urging Argentines to take extra precautions ahead of the long Easter weekend.
Health Ministry officials have led the calls for greater vigilance, which come amid a renewed surge in infections in Argentina and the wider region. Over the past five days, more than 54,000 new confirmed cases have been recorded in the country, with daily tallies entering five figures in four of the last five days. On Monday, more than 14,000 new cases were recorded in just 24 hours – the highest daily tally for five months.
Officials in the national government, including President Fernández himself, have nevertheless ruled out a return to a total lockdown, while officials in the Education Ministry have underlined that schools will not be shuttered as they were last year, with face-to-face classes now considered “essential.”
Fears of a ‘second wave’ spread in Latin America seem to be well placed. On Tuesday, Brazil confirmed a new daily high death toll of 3,780 fatalities in 24 hours, adding to the more than 317,000 that have died there since the start of the pandemic. The virus is also surging in Chile, where the capital Santiago has entered a new lockdown, and in Uruguay, which has seen a rise in infections over the past two weeks.
"It seems to me that we are close to the second wave [in Argentina]. All the countries that surround us are experiencing it," said President Fernández in an interview on Saturday night with the C5N news channel.
New strains, new measures
On Monday, Argentina’s Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry confirmed in a statement that four ‘foreign’ variants of Covid-19 are now circulating among communities in Argentina: the so-called Manaus and Rio de Janeiro (both Brazilian) strains, as well as two others originating from the United Kingdom and California, United States. They were classified as such because the new variants were found in individuals who have not travelled recently.
Reacting to what health officials described as a “worrying epidemiological situation,” the national government on Sunday called on all citizens to “redouble efforts to strengthen care and sustain tourism with care, avoiding high-risk activities."
In a pre-recorded statement, Health Minister Carla Vizzotti and Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero announced that public-sector employees who did not have to be onsite to complete their work were now authorised to work remotely.
As proposed by the officials, many municipal and provincial governments issued the same order over the following two days, with a host of private firms also following suit. Employees in the judicial sector and in national and provincial legislatures are also expected to receive the same offer.
"From Monday, March 29 to Wednesday, March 31, inclusive, [workers in] the national public sector is exempted from being present in the workplace, [their work] must be fulfilled by teleworking," said Cafiero.
He called on Argentines to “revalidate all active protocols” to ensure “careful tourism” took place over Easter. Last summer, 12.8 million citizens travelled for the long weekend, according to official data, underlining the potential risks.
The Cabinet chief said that “intensive, localised and transitory measures" would be adopted by 45 municipalities in 13 provinces that had registered exponential increases in infections, including Buenos Aires City.
"The epidemiological situation is worrying. There is a sustained increase in the number of cases in most of the country's departments," said Vizzotti, explaining the reasoning behind the move.
Borders and flights
In recent days, the government has also reinforced border controls, ramping up testing for those returning to the country from overseas and suspending flights from Brazil, Chile and Mexico, in addition to those from the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.
On Monday, national aviation officials announced they were rescheduling the times of all international flights to ensure greater separation between them. New rules for arriving citizens and residents were also introduced, with all those entering Argentina now required to undertake an immediate test upon arrival and enter seven days of isolation, regardless of the result.
Speaking Wednesday, Buenos Aires City Health Minister Fernán Quirós said he supported the national administration's move to tighten borders, saying it would "help a lot" in controlling the spread of new variants of the virus.
"We have to make every effort so that they do not pick up speed," he said, referring to the Manaus and British strains, which he confirmed were circulating in the capital.
Quirós said new measures could be introduced by City Hall, should the situation worsen. He added that hospitals were holding up well, but that City officials had witnessed a "slow rise in cases over five weeks." He said one in three beds at intensive care units (ICUs) in the City were currently occupied.
Buenos Aires Province Health Minister Daniel Gollán said that new measures would be introduced in the region this week, amid a “strong increase in the number of cases” that was having “a strong impact on the entire health system.”
"It is worrying how the number of cases is beginning to impact upon the health system,” he said. “It would have been preferable if the second wave, which was going to be impossible to avoid in the cold, would have occurred in one or two months."
National government officials have also sought this week to reiterate the importance of existing preventative measures, such as the use of a face mask, regular hand washing and social distancing.
To date, Argentina has vaccinated around three million people with their first dose and around 600,000 with the second.
This week, the government said it would look to delay the introduction of second doses as part of a wider strategy to expand protection among citizens. "No vaccination plan is going to interrupt the circulation of the virus, what we want is to attract those who are at a higher risk of developing complications and dying," said Vizzotti.
– TIMES with agencies