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ARGENTINA | 21-03-2020 10:55

March 16th-23rd: What We Learned This Week

Stories that caught our eye in the last seven days.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

The only story in town, as they say. Below follows a day-by-day news summary of a week overwhelmingly dominated by the looming coronavirus pandemic (with 128 confirmed cases and three deaths at the time of writing).

SUNDAY. Flanked by Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof and City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, President Alberto Fernández announces from Olivos presidential residence the closure of the national frontiers (except to over 20,000 stranded Argentines seeking to return from abroad) and the suspension of school classes for the rest of the month. At that point the number of confirmed cases had reached 56.

MONDAY. No government announcements beyond generally encouraging people to work from their homes but the local stock market fully reflects a Black Monday worldwide with country risk rising beyond 3,500 points and Argentine shares and bonds falling by up to 35 percent abroad.

TUESDAY. A day devoted to covering the socio-economic rather than the public health front with the government earmarking some 700 billion pesos in soft credits to blunt the impact of coronavirus. Firstly, a social package is announced by Social Development Minister Daniel Arroyo and ANSES social security administration chief Alejandro Vanoli, aimed at nearly 18 million Argentines in low-income brackets with a total fiscal cost of 27.65 billion pesos – the six measures include bonuses of 3,000 pesos for those on minimum pensions and social plans and of 3,100 pesos for family and maternity benefits, an extra two-month grace period on ANSES credits for all pensioners, more support for school and community canteens and postal delivery of Alimentar food stamp cards. Then the ministerial duo of Martín Guzmán (Economy) and Matías Kulfas (Production) accompanied by Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero unleash a battery of economic measures, including an exemption from employer social security contributions for all crisis-stricken sectors, as well as state assistance to pay salaries via the Productive Recovery Programme (Programa de Recuperación Productiva or REPRO) in order to save jobs while boosting unemployment insurance. Kulfas announces that the prices of 50 basic food items will be frozen based on a rollback to March 6. The package further seeks to revive the construction sector via a 100-billion-peso expansion of the public works budget and a relaunch of the Procrear housing scheme. The government also takes its first steps towards the current quarantine by banning domestic flights and long-distance transport for the long weekend only in order to disband holiday crowds. Mendoza becomes the first province to close its frontiers.

WEDNESDAY. Fernández huddles with governors and opposition parliamentary caucus leaders in a display of political unity to tighten the measures thus far and to contemplate total quarantine. Covid-19 claims its third fatal victim. Six more provinces (Chaco, one of the worst-hit, Jujuy, Salta, Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero and Tierra del Fuego) join Mendoza in closing their borders. No coronavirus case is announced by China for the first time in over three months.

THURSDAY. Late in the day President Fernández places the entire country in quarantine in a move detailed in much of the rest of this edition. In a rare show of press unity all Argentine newspapers publish the same front page with headlines reading “We stop the virus together” and “Let’s make the responsibility viral. #WeAreResponsible.”

FRIDAY. Argentina awakes to lockdown. Health officials reiterate that isolation is the only way forward and ex-president Mauricio Macri calls his successor to express his support (and reportedly plead for the economy not to be entirely shut down). Global stocks are hit again, although the Merval has an improved day – its end the week 16 percent down, however.

 

MARKETS, PAINT IT BLACK

While the dollar closed the week at 65 pesos in Banco Nación, most parallel exchange rates were above 85 pesos. Country risk returned to its midweek level of 4,040 points following a Thursday recovery as a Black Friday ended a stock market week beginning with a Black Monday.

 

CRISTINA AND FLORENCIA RETURN

Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is due to return tomorrow from Cuba where she had travelled the previous weekend – in order to bring her daughter Florencia home after over a year of medical treatment on the Caribbean island, she announced yesterday. The veep said she would respect a fortnight of quarantine as befitting both somebody aged over 65 and returning from abroad. On Monday the TOF2 court suspended the last corruption trial against her on charges centred on the misallocation of highway funds to favour Kirchnerite tycoon Lázaro Báez in Santa Cruz, the home province of the Kirchner family. Elsewhere on the legal front, the Supreme Court has so far stopped short of ordering a total holiday for the sector in the light of the coronavirus crisis but recommended that all judicial activity be reduced to a “minimum.”

 

ISRAELI EMBASSY ANNIVERSARY

Since 1992 the joyous occasion of St. Patrick’s Day has coincided here with the far more painful anniversary of the terrorist bomb destruction of the Israeli Embassy but last Tuesday coronavirus prevented any public events from being held either to celebrate the former or to mourn the latter.

 

SALTA DEBT LOAD

Salta last weekend confirmed its aim to reschedule provincial debts to a total of 9.6 billion pesos (including US$ 40 million denominated in that currency), thus adding to a list of “reprofiling” provinces also including Chubut and La Rioja.

 

SUPERMARKET LAW

The anti-monopoly law to prevent any one brand of food products, beverages, toiletries or detergents from occupying more than 30 percent of supermarket shelf space was promulgated on Tuesday after being approved by the Senate at the end of February.

 

POVERTY LINE

A family of four needs to earn almost 40,800 pesos a month to stay above the poverty line and 16,785 pesos to avoid destitution, INDEC statistics bureau reported on Tuesday.

 

CORONAVIRUS CAN’T STOP VIOLENCE

Even coronavirus could not put a lid on gang warfare in Rosario with four people (all suspected of connection to the drug trade) gunned down in the past week.

 

HIGUAÍN REBELS

Juventus strike Gonzalo Higuaín has left the team’s quarantine and returned home to Argentina, it was reported from Italy on Thursday. The veteran of the last three World Cups was reportedly anxious to visit his mother recently tested for Covid-19. The test apparently turned out negative but two of Higuaín’s Juventus teammates have tested positive.

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