Today marks the first 100 days of quarantine in Argentina but these 100 days are entirely different, turning that cliché of political analysis on its head. The original Hundred Days (between Napoleon’s return from Elba and his defeat at Waterloo in 1815) concluded in the Congress of Vienna, a decisive battle followed by decisive diplomacy – the reactionary Congress system installed by the victors over Revolutionary and Napoleonic France could be criticised for almost anything except creating uncertainty, leaving no doubts in any minds about the order governing the Old World for the next three decades.
But in today’s coronavirus pandemic there is no Waterloo and no latter-day global version of the Concert of Europe in sight. Not even a vaccine will suffice to vanquish the invisible enemy of Covid-19 for good – here a chain is as strong as its weakest link more than ever and there will be no guarantees against a new outbreak while there remain vulnerable corners of the planet in which the pathogen can lurk. But although this pandemic is the fruit of globalisation (without modern air travel we might not even be marking 50 days of quarantine in Argentina today), there is no sign of any international coordination against even present dangers, let alone creating a new and fairer world order to eradicate those vulnerable corners of the planet or to last for three decades like the Congress of Vienna. Behind closed frontiers in most cases with the nation state in full revival, each government lurches into its own response in a global patchwork of quarantine strategies amid total uncertainty.
Among those strategies 100 days certainly stands out for extreme length so let us focus on Argentina. The strains imposed make the notion of a false dilemma between public health and economy increasingly hard to maintain. And perhaps the worst part of that dilemma is that both sides are completely right and completely wrong at the same time – if politics is said to be the art of compromise, any compromise solution looks completely out of place here.
Judging solely by appearances, the balance between public health and the economy is extremely lopsided, heavily favouring the latter. Both aspects have in common that the worst is yet to come but the economic damage is already so much clearer than the nebulous health hazards haunting the future – quarantine critics have no lack of ammunition either for highlighting the former or rubbishing the latter.
One paradox of this pandemic is that a mostly asymptomatic pathogen is infinitely more dangerous than its more lethal predecessors – looking at the vast majority of Covid-19 patients, Donald Trump is entirely right to dismiss coronavirus as “Kung flu” until he is not. There is clearly no comparison with Spanish flu a century ago – after half a year only around 0.13 percent of world population (slightly below average in Argentina) has even experienced Covid-19 with a death rate of 0.007 percent (0.0025 percent in Argentina), many probably in the last year of their lives anyway. In contrast, the devastating economic impact is all too clear with a growing majority of analysts predicting double-digit shrinkage for Argentina this year while the most pessimistic forecasts in the region of a 13-15 percent contraction seem to fall short when the minority of shops staying open are lucky to reach 30 percent of previous sales. Never has there been a simultaneous collapse of supply and demand.
Yet those underlining the minimalist percentages of cases and deaths are missing the point – the real danger is the collapse of the health system and when the percentages of intensive care bed occupancy are already high in the first week of winter, that menace is acute. It’s easy to play the blame game here (the numbers of cases in Buenos Aires City and Province, the previous provincial administration’s decision to improve existing rather than build new hospitals, etc.) but irrespective of where the fault lies for the health system, we are where we are and no effort can be spared to bring it up to the challenge.
In general, this extreme uncertainty is no time for any criticism not accompanied by constructive alternatives. Whatever the misgivings about this government – the justified suspicions that economic collapse might not be entirely negative for an administration seeking debt haircuts and housing an ideology of state intervention – these should also go into quarantine. A government facing an impossible situation might very well not be up to it but there is already too much disunity in the world to encourage more at home.