Argentina extends lockdown amid controversy over easing some restrictions

Buenos Aires, Apr 27 (efe-epa).- On Monday, Argentina began a new phase in its battle against the coronavirus, extending until May 10 the nationwide quarantine amid controversy over the refusal of Buenos Aires and other large parts of the country to allow one-hour recreational walks outdoors which the national government had announced would be permitted during this new period.

The preventive and obligatory social isolation that has prevailed in Argentina since March 20 to limit the spread of the coronavirus has already been extended three times, and in this third phase people will be allowed – albeit under certain specific conditions – to resume some of their “normal” activities based on where they live. That is, people living in some places with lower populations and where there are few or no virus cases, or where the pandemic is “under control,” will be able to do things that others elsewhere may not yet consider.

To date, the country has registered 3,892 Covid-19 cases and 192 deaths with 1,140 patients having been declared “cured.” This is a situation with which the government of Alberto Fernandez is satisfied considering that it reflects better containment of the pandemic than in a number of other countries.

During the new extension of the quarantine, urban areas of more than 500,000 residents will have to continue with full social confinement, except – according to existing guidelines – when people need to go out to buy groceries or other basic goods or go to their jobs in “essential” sectors.

However, Fernandez last Friday announced – along with the new extension – that starting on Monday people will be allowed to make “recreational outings” of up to one hour within a radius of 500 meters (about 1,640 feet) of their homes.

Although the public had to wait for the official publication of the decree to see the precise conditions of the president’s announcement, right from the start a strenuous debate broke out on the social networks and in the media regarding how such outings would be undertaken, whether children would also be allowed outside accompanied by an adult and how members of groups at higher risk of serious health consequences if they were to become infected with the coronavirus would or should conduct themselves.

On Sunday, the Buenos Aires provincial government and that of the Argentina capital, the two areas with the most Covid-19 cases, issued a joint communique with Cordoba and Santa Fe in which they said that they would differentiate by locales and their specific characteristics “the appropriateness of applying the regime for one-hour recreational outings.”

Argentina’s four most populous districts – the leaders of three of which are politically aligned with Fernandez, although the capital is in opposition hands – said that in the big urban areas where the virus is circulating recreational outings will not be permitted although they remain open to that possibility if the rate of infection evolves favorably, under which conditions outings may be allowed “in restricted form.”

“For cities of our size, it’s not simple to get coordination of everyone who goes out, you just have to look at Madrid yesterday, where a huge number of people went into the streets. Obviously, Madrid has one difference: it’s several weeks ahead of us with the peaks of the pandemic having already occurred. Our number of cases is still growing,” Buenos Aires Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli told Mitre Radio.

Amid the debate, Fernandez acknowledged on Monday in radio remarks his mistake in not having clarified on Saturday that the decision to allow recreational outings would be regulated by the governors of each district, as the decree itself specified later, and he denied having any conflicts with them, although he said he was against “maintaining an endless lockdown” since the “psychological health of the people must be preserved.”

As part of the restrictions to avoid the spread of the virus, on Monday authorities also announced that commercial air traffic will not yet be normalized either on national or international routes until at least Sept. 1, the date on which airlines once again will be able to sell tickets for flights.

Air transport has been paralyzed in Argentina since mid-March and only health-related flights and special government-authorized flights to bring Argentines or Argentina residents stranded in various places around the world due to the shutdown in passenger travel.

On Friday, authorities authorized the arrival this week of 16 more flights on which 3,104 Argentines who requested transport back home will arrive, and once they get back about 90 percent of all citizens who have requested repatriation will have returned.

This month, Argentina will mark the second anniversary of its ongoing recession, which has brought high levels of inflation, unemployment, poverty and a drop in industrial production without any end in sight.

Now, with the additional blow to expectations by the coronavirus, in recent weeks the uncertainty has been reflected in the rise in the risk premium at the same time that the government has been moving forward on talks regarding the restructuring of the country’s high foreign debt.

To alleviate the effects of the economic paralysis caused by the quarantine, the Argentine government has already disbursed some 850 billion pesos ($12.8 billion), equivalent to almost 3 percent of the GDP.

The lowest tax collections during the quarantine and the biggest expenditures are forcing the state to print huge amounts of pesos, a move that is pressuring the currency against the US dollar and other currencies.

In addition to the economic tension, one must add the situation in the country’s prisons, where several riots have been staged by inmates demanding that they be allowed to serve their sentences under house arrest to escape the danger of becoming infected with Covid-19 in the crowded prisons themselves.

In this regard, the Health Ministry on Monday presented a “health plan within the context of incarceration” that sets forth assorted measures to attend to the health of inmates and prison staff.


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