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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 10-04-2021 08:11

Back to square one

For poorer countries, among them Argentina, salvation is still a long way off.

A year ago, when it was widely assumed that a month or so of lockdown would be enough to see off the coronavirus pandemic, governments were applauded for forcing people to stay indoors and, while at it, telling the local constabulary to hunt down rebels against the new order who imagined that indulging in an extreme form of social distancing by going for a walk in the woods or on a lonely beach, miles from anyone else, would not be regarded as subversive.

And for a while, it really did look as though making people steer well clear of one another would do the trick. In Europe, with spring and then summer encouraging them to at least leave the windows open, the death rate plummeted as optimists had forecast. But then, when colder weather returned, it shot up again, in some countries reaching far higher levels than before. To widespread dismay, the second and third waves of the pandemic have proved to be every bit as lethal as the first, but far fewer Europeans than before are willing to obey their government’s ukases. 

Much the same is happening here. Autumn has seen the virus launch a new offensive which, all the experts agree, will in all likelihood turn out to be far fiercer than the previous ones. To make matters worse, in Argentina vaccines remain even scarcer than is the case in much of Europe. Perhaps this will change soon as the big pharmaceutical companies ramp up their production, but for now at any rate the public mood is sombre.

To nobody’s surprise, politicians everywhere are doing their best to take advantage of the pandemic. Those in government make much of their willingness to take tough but, they say, absolutely necessary measures and accuse their critics of behaving in a crassly irresponsible way. As far as Alberto is concerned, they are “imbeciles.” 

No doubt his counterparts elsewhere have an equally low opinion of opposition leaders who either accuse them of mishandling the pandemic or pat themselves on the back for treating them better than they think they deserve. Throughout the world, similar debates are taking place, with the men and women who wield executive power defending strict lockdowns and their adversaries insisting that the economic, social and mental costs of such policies are already atrociously high and persisting with them would cause more harm than good.

It would seem that, with the possible exception of Taiwan, no country’s government got things right from the very beginning. However, after a rocky start Israel and the United Kingdom have managed to keep the rapidly mutating virus hordes at bay by vaccinating much of the adult population. In both countries the death rate has fallen sharply as, according to the latest statistics, it is now doing in the United States.

For poorer countries, among them Argentina, salvation is still a long way off. The vaccination programme has been slow, confused and marred by nasty quarrels over who should be first in line for a jab, with youthful pro-government activists elbowing their way to the head of the queue, closely followed by politicians of one kind or another and members of powerful unions like the school teachers.

This was predictable. Hopes that the challenge posed by the virus would turn the country into an egalitarian utopia in which everyone would respect the official priorities, with doctors and other health workers, plus older and therefore more vulnerable older folk getting vaccinated first and the rest patiently waiting for their turn were always far-fetched. As has been painfully clear for a great many years, Argentina is not that kind of country.

The Kirchnerite government’s decision to impose something very like a nationwide curfew, ordering restaurants and bars to close their doors at what, for most people, is the ridiculously early hour of 11pm and the streets to stay empty until 6am, as well as demanding more social distancing, did not enjoy the approval of the people who run the City of Buenos Aires. Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta wanted a softer and more flexible approach. In contrast, the Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff would have preferred something more draconian, although by now he must be well aware that many, perhaps most, of the people who live in his jurisdiction will be unable to obey the rules.

For millions, especially those who depend on odd jobs to keep body and soul together, the virus is less fearful than the very real danger that a new lockdown could deprive them of their livelihood. The government, which to judge from its behaviour fears that the measures it has just taken will meet with resistance, evidently hopes against hope that within a month or two enough people will have been vaccinated to allow it to give them permission to get on with their business, and that when this happens the majority will recognise that bringing the country to a halt was the right thing to do. Alberto bravely says he would be happy to lose the upcoming elections for supporting an unpopular policy if by doing so he helped save lives.

If the vaccines arrive in sufficient quantities, the government’s gamble could pay off. As luck would have it, there are plenty of good reasons to believe that most of the shots work very well indeed, though it is reported that in Chile a single dose of the Chinese version is proving ineffective. As for the one developed by an Oxford University team which is being produced and distributed by AstraZeneca, it has been the target of a partly spontaneous and partly political campaign to discredit it; the possibility that about one person in half a million could suffer serious side effects has been seized on by individuals determined to prove it is worse than useless.

Pointing out that all pharmaceutical products, even aspirins, come with health warnings that make unpleasant reading, and that in any event having the AstraZeneca product injected in one’s arm is, if the statistics are anything to go by, much less risky than boarding an airline, going for a drive in a car or riding a bike, does nothing to silence the sceptics. All this greatly worries governments who fear a reluctance to get vaccinated could help the disease spread and kill many people, and the World Health Organisation experts who understand that the cheap, easily transportable and by all accounts very effective AstraZeneca vaccine should be a game-changer in dozens of poorer countries. 

Taken aback by all the bad publicity it is receiving, the company must be ruing the day it agreed to sell its product at cost price, unlike other more commercially-minded outfits which expect to make huge profits by marketing something the world desperately needs and are far better when it comes to public relations than the predominantly British firm whose executives naively supposed that doing what moralists were demanding and handing out cut-price vaccines until the pandemic came to an end would win it some kudos. 

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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