When and how will Buenos Aires open-up again?
On Friday evening, Alberto Fernandez, president of Argentina since December 2019 was due to speak at 8pm to reveal what to expect regarding the lock-down which started on March 19th and has been prolonged every 2 weeks since, the latest official end-date being today, May 10th. The announcement did come, albeit at 8.30pm because the notion of time tends to be quite elastic here, something I still have trouble getting used to: it is perfectly OK to have the whole country waiting in front of the TV for 30 minutes while journalists are blabbing small-talk, speculations and old news to fill the time. The verdict was that the lock-down would be somewhat eased in the whole country EXCEPT in the Buenos Aires region because of its population density. This means we can still only go out to buy food or to the pharmacy/doctor alone (with a face-mask and social distancing) or walk the dogs up to 350m from home, and while it is always possible to stretch the rules, there is quite a lot of police control and the last thing I want is to get in legal trouble here. So we're still stuck: no fun but quite understandable. With about 30% of Argentina's inhabitants, the greater Buenos Aires area is densely populated and has lots of great public transport which is used by very many people and therefore, following the principle of "no good deed goes unpunished", it has now become a serious contamination hazard. It also includes neighborhoods (they are called "villas") that have very poor housing, sanitary and internet conditions and where social distancing in almost impossible. In parallel, the health infrastructure is insufficient and the objective of the early lock-down (there were very few Covid-19 cases and deaths) was to have time to ramp it up. At present, Buenos Aires will remain locked at least till May 24th, quite ironic because May 25th is Argentina's (first) independence day, so maybe it will be double-independence day?
I keep asking myself whether the Covid-19 situation has been well managed in Argentina. From a purely sanitary point of view, it is a true success: very few virus-related deaths (less than 300 to date), no comparison whatsoever to the horrible stories from Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or from the US and Europe. However, in the mean time poverty has increased from around 35% to over 40% in the last two months and even though the government is helping, many people work in the informal economy and have had no income for the past 50 days, forcing them to sell the meager belongings they have. Certain professions have been allowed to start working again in the past few weeks but the food-pantries are still seeing more than double their usual demand and many are "new clients". Despite some official support, businesses are really hurting and then there is the bitter aftertaste of the recent corruption scandal: the minister of Social Affairs purchased food for distribution in bulk, at prices that were higher than retail prices! Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others...
And how long can this go on? Argentina was already in a deep economic crisis and almost bankrupt before the virus . Now, it will probably declare a new default -some call the country a "serial-defaulter"- and be double-bankrupt (if there is such a thing) with all the short and long term consequences thereof. Over the past 7 years, I have become quite used to living with high inflation (currently 50%) and I sometimes wonder if I will get to witness hyper-inflation, like Alex has experienced in 1989. He would get paid every week instead of monthly and run to the store to buy all he needed and more (as long as it was nonperishable) because it would be more expensive a few hours later. Alternatively he could chose to avoid money erosion by investing in saving accounts with terms of 2 or 3 days! Price tags needed to be changed constantly, leading to products with multiple stickers stacked on top of each other. The smartest shoppers would of course peel off one or two prices to get a better deal so, tired of the whole situation, retailers stopped using price tags altogether and reverted to codes. Each code corresponded to a different amount each day, a partly manual version of barcodes:)
Today, all this doesn't even surprise me any more. I have found Argentina to be a land of creativity and astonishment, a "never a dull moment" country, and I am anxious to see how it will awaken from its Covid-sleep: penniless princess or authoritarian toad? In any case, we will fly! But that doesn't mean I won't miss it sometimes...especially the people.
On the picture: Avenida 9 de Julio, said to be the widest avenue in the world, EMPTY. It is named after July 9th 1816, Argentina's second independence day (some countries are more equal than others) and built in the early 20th century, when Argentina was among the richest countries of the world (#12 in the 1913 global ranking of per capita income).