President Alberto Fernández announced a liberalisation of Argentina’s lengthy coronavirus lockdown on Friday, as he said it was time to try to return to “normal life.”
He warned, however, that the country was a long way from overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic and called on citizens – especially those under the age of 40 – to take responsibility for their actions and take measures to prevent the spread of the virus among the elderly.
"We're a very long way from having overcome this situation. The risk is still latent," said the president during a televised announcement, flanked in person by Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof.
The news came as the Health Ministry announced another new daily record of 4,518 confirmed cases, lifting the total number of confirmed cases to date to 119,301. Officials said 45 new deaths had also been registered, lifting the death toll to 2,178.
Currently, the occupancy rate of intensive care beds in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area is 64 percent, against 54 percent nationally.
Ending a 17-day return to strict lockdown conditions in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA), officials said that, starting Monday, non-essential businesses, industry and certain professional activities would be allowed to restart. Citizens will also be allowed to go outside for exercise and to visit places of worship for individual prayer.
Many of Argentina’s 23 provinces have already loosened restrictions put in place to tackle the spread of Covid-19, with many reporting very few new cases.
More than 90 percent of all cases have been in the Greater Buenos Aires region, home to around a third of the population. Containment measures in the region have been relaxed once before but were reimposed on July 1 to combat a surge in cases. Despite Argentina recording record daily highs of confirmed cases this week, a loosening of the lockdown will now take place.
“From July 18 to August 2 we will try to return to normal life in this new world that requires different care,” said Fernández. “We are going to do it gradually and in the meantime we are going to continue working to strengthen the health system and the research we have to produce the critical supplies that are needed.”
He said that it was possible to restart activities given that Argentina’s mortality rate is significantly lower than many of its Latin American neighbours.
"This great effort so far has not been in vain," said the president, saying strict lockdown measures would be reintroduced if necessary. "I ask Argentines to exercise their own individual responsibility. This next stage will depend on that."
During his announcement, Fernández said that the specific loosening of policies and the restarting of activities would be determined for the most part by provincial governments, with the Presidency only seeking to approve or reject propositions.
From Monday, Buenos Aires City will begin a six-phase reopening plan, which will include social distancing, minimum social contact and the opening of local shops and small shopping districts.
In a nod to fears about the health and wellbeing of citizens and children, outings for exercise and the young will be permitted as from July 20, with kids now allowed out during the week in set timeframes.
Schools will remain closed as their potential reopening is analysed and restrictions on the use of public transport will also remain in place, with services dedicated for essential workers only.
Kicillof, in his part of the announcement, said that Buenos Aires Province would begin a period of "intermittent quarantines" that will allow stores to reopen on July 22 with new health protocols. On July 27, "professional activities" can also be resumed, he added.
He acknowledged that there was "a health problem, and there is a social, economic and emotional problem," saying that citizens' wellbeing was key.
There was no new announcement regarding the opening of Argentina’s borders, which remain closed, though the government’s ban on commercial flights is due to expire on September 1.
Pressure on President Alberto Fernández has been growing to relax lockdown measures in recent weeks, with criticism from the hardline sector of the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition increasing by the week. On July 9, the latest in a series of protests against the quarantine took place in downtown Buenos Aires, congregating at the Obelisk.
The Peronist leader has defended his approach to managing the pandemic, saying that lockdown measures were the only way to save lives in the global pandemic.
Support for the quarantine has been falling, polls show, though a majority still back it. According to a survey by the Public Opinion Centre (COPUB) from the University of Belgrano carried out in the first week of July in Buenos Aires, support for the measures fell from 68 percent to 53 percent last month.
"I am not pressured by those who go out into the street or those who say that the virus does not exist. I am pressured by reality, the merchants who have their shops closed and those who want to go out to work," said Fernández.
Despite a huge state aid package, the fall-out from the pandemic will have a deep impact – in April, GDP fell by 26.4 percent, with the worst likely to come.
"The flexibility at the moment when we have more daily cases is due to fatigue and the economic impact. It is a political decision rather than a health decision," political analyst Carlos Fara told AFP.
"With these measures, the president shows empathy with the needs of the people, and also the accompaniment of the governors and the mayor allows him to exhibit unity," he said.
The president warned Argentines on Friday that the worst could still lie ahead and said the next weeks would require everyone to take responsibility for their actions.
“Between July 18 and August 2 we’ll be returning to our usual lives in this new world which requires different things from us," he said, flanked by the two AMBA region leaders and governors from other provinces hit by the virus: Arabela Carreras (Río Negro), Gerardo Morales (Jujuy) and Jorge Capitanich (Chaco).
"More than 90 percent of the contagion is occurring in the [Buenos Aires] metropolitan area but transit causes the virus to circulate so that contagion is possible anywhere in the country," underlined Fernández.
For that reason, he appealed to social responsibility, maintaining that the "effort" undertaken during the compulsory isolation "made sense," permitting Argentina to rank "among the countries with the least deaths" in the world.
The president also warned that “if we have to go back, we will and if we have to adjust more, we will. I ask you all to take into account that the average age is 37 among the total confirmed cases of contagion. There is no immunity, the contagion can reach us all.”
He then added that the average age of the deceased was 73, therefore asking those aged over 60 “to stay home and keep looking after themselves. It is possible that in the next few days we have greater circulation of human beings and that means greater circulation of the virus and hence contagion. The more of us there are in the street, the greater the risk we run.”
The president asked the citizenry to take special care and respect social distancing when celebrating Día del Amigo (July 20) with their friends. “Negligence could trigger major outbreaks. If we love our friends so much, the best thing we can do is greet them from a distance,” he said.
– TIMES with agencies