In the height of the summer holiday season, with Covid surging across the country, the beaches are full of tourists anxious to leave the bad times of lockdown behind them.
Argentina is currently the Latin American country with the highest number of new cases of Covid-19 contagion (more than 800,000 over the past week), but there is no steep rise in mortality and everyone is still heading to the coast.
The Atlantic resort of Mar del Plata, a traditional summer holiday destination, is experiencing a frenetic season this January with crowds in the beaches and at the discos – and also in queues for Covid-19 swab tests.
“People want to get out after two years of pandemic. It’s like payback time. People are letting go. Covid is entering its final stage and people have to enjoy themselves, they have to live,” says 25-year-old medical student Andrés Gazzola, as he sits by the seaside.
In 2020, Argentina experienced one of the longest lockdowns in the world. Last year it slowly reopened schools (although not universities) and reactivated some economic sectors. The country reopened its frontiers last November.
Now on the beaches bristling with sunshades there are just as many families struggling to maintain a bubble as youthful groups proclaiming the end of Covid.
“The pandemic is over,” says laughing adolescent Lara Serra.
“This is full of people. It’s everything a teenager could want,” declares her friend Renata Pendino enthusiastically.
Discos, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels are competing to recover from the bad times that closed them down for many months, days in which the city became so solitary that sea-lions began roaming its squares.
"The boliches [“night-clubs”] are exploding. There is a festive atmosphere beyond the pandemic, an energy to have a good time," sums up Emiliano Guzmán, a youngster from San Juan.
But just a few metres away from the beach, the queues for swab tests are growing. The percentage testing positive in Mar del Plata rises daily, topping 62 percent, according to the health authorities, more than the national average of 50 percent and well above the 10 percent recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Patricia Bogdanowicz, a paediatrician and specialist in infectious diseases at the Hospital de Clínicas in Buenos Aires, sounds the alert as to relaxed attitudes towards precautions, especially among vaccinated youth.
“What they do not take into account is that the huge number of Covid-19 has left the productive machinery on tenterhooks with whole branches of the health services unable to function due to the number of doctors, paramedics and nurses in isolation,” she told AFP.
No less than 1.1 million of over 6.9 million cases of Covid-19 in Argentina (with 45 million inhabitants) have been registered this year with the accumulated death toll topping 117,900. Records are broken daily. In midweek there were 131,082 cases of contagion with 75 deaths. Around 40 percent of intensive care beds are occupied.
Last June when the record in a single day was 42,000 cases, there were 500 to 600 deaths daily for several weeks.
Almost three-quarters of the population have been vaccinated twice in Argentina, while 18 percent have received a third ‘booster’ dose.
“The population is difficult to control, it’s very hard telling them to comply with restrictions. The pandemic is highly politicised and if you try measures, it is possible that there will be demonstrations against them, which in turn are situations of greater contagion,” says infectious diseases expert Dr Luis Cámera, who advises President Alberto Fernández.
The holiday season has been intensely promoted by the government, which is trying to revive the economy after GDP plunged 9.9 percent in 2020. Last year, it rebounded 10 percent, but many businesses are still under strain.
For this season, the Tourism & Sports Ministry launched the Previaje programme of financial consumer incentives for Argentina’s tourist spots. Some 4.5 million people have taken advantage of the plan, which compensates up to 50 percent of costs.
And although the cases of contagion are multiplying, the government not only rejects imposing new health restrictions but has also made the isolation norms more flexible to avoid paralysis.
"Instead of intensive care beds, we’re worried by job absenteeism," Health Minister Carla Vizzotti declared recently.
The Unión Industrial Argentina (Argentine Industrial Union, UIA) last week asked the government to take measures to halt the rise in workers not showing up due to having been a close contact of a positive case, now reaching 7.5 percent of the workforce.
A greater lack of health workers has also been reported due to the isolations for Covid-19.
by Fernando Legarreta & Eduardo de Miguel, AFP