Argentine President Alberto Fernandez was clear when COVID-19 first hit the country early last year: saving lives at all costs took precedence over any economic concerns.
Now facing a second wave of infections, the South American nation has adjusted its strategy to prioritize protecting its fragile economy. He hopes more experience in fighting the coronavirus, a fledgling vaccination program and short regional lockdowns can help control the virus.
The second wave comes at a delicate time for the center-left Peronist government. He is heading for a midterm election in October to defend his majority in Congress, his popularity bruised by a strict and prolonged lockdown last year and the severe economic blow.
The grain producer is also in talks with the International Monetary Fund to reorganize some $ 45 billion in loans it cannot repay and must revive economic growth to bring in the hard currency it needs so badly. And creditors are looking for signs of recovery after sovereign debt restructuring last year.
The Fernandez administration wants to avoid imposing a general lockdown, instead using data on the number of cases to establish short-term localized restrictions, strengthen health measures and maintain border controls, a government source said.
The government also wants to speed up the deployment of a vaccine delayed by a shortage of supplies, aimed at vaccinating all medical workers and people at high risk before the southern winter which is fast approaching.
Argentina’s economy contracted by around 10% last year, the third consecutive year of recession, and Economy Minister Martin Guzman said it “could not withstand” a another total shutdown. Poverty levels reached 42% in the second half of last year.
The country has recorded around 2.4 million coronavirus cases and more than 56,000 deaths, and a second wave is building with recent daily cases at 80% of peak and rising, according to an official Reuters data tally. On Tuesday, infections hit a daily high.
“The second wave and the incidence of cases could be even worse when the variants take hold,” said Tomás Orduna, an infectious disease specialist who advises the government, referring to the ‘Brazilian’ P1 variant and other current in the region.
Argentina infectious disease expert Martin Hojman said winter in the southern hemisphere and reopening of operations will continue to fuel the second wave.
He said the vaccination rate – which has seen some 4.3 million doses administered so far in a country of around 45 million people – was not fast enough.
Leda Guzzi, an infectious disease expert based in Buenos Aires, said there had been a very substantial increase in cases over the past month, and highlighted the “R-number,” which measures transmission rates, in arrow in some areas.
“When this index is above 1.2, it means cases are worryingly accelerating and the lights should come on … This is happening in different jurisdictions and different departments,” she said. .
Despite this, schools and restaurants in most places are open and many Argentines say they don’t want another strict lockdown.
“I think there has to be a middle ground where the economy doesn’t collapse and shops don’t close and where so many people are left on the streets and out of work,” said Ambar Rujal, a 19 year old student in Buenos Aires.
Jorge Giacobbe, a Buenos Aires-based political analyst, said the government would not want to risk upsetting voters so close to the October parliamentary elections.
“There are going to be restrictions, but the government knows it can no longer make severe restrictions. People will not allow it after undergoing such a strict quarantine in 2020,” he said.
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