Among humid air and cloudy skies over Buenos Aires on March 19, President Alberto Fernández announced that Argentina would enter a mandatory nationwide quarantine the following day, introducing some of the strictest measures in Latin America.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had barely surpassed 100, and had claimed the lives of just three people, but the pandemic’s global impact was already starting to be feared.
Shop shutters came down as the national government unrolled an emergency aid package for private companies, workers, and families. Deep in recession and tense negotiations with the creditors to restructure more than US$65 billion in foreign debt, the engines of Argentina’s economy were switched off overnight.
The shutdown didn’t reach Celeste Basaez, a third-year Argentina med student at the Hospital Interzonal General de Agudos Evita de Lanús in Buenos Aires. She was away in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, undertaking a residency at the Bellvitge University Hospital, one of Spain’s best public hospitals.
“I was studying in the TB [tuberculosis] unit, which belongs to the Department of Microbiology,” Celeste told the Times in an interview. “We were directly affected by this situation.
”The coronavirus outbreak had already reached Spain. Its first reported case arrived on the final day of January. By the time the government declared a state of emergency and national lockdown on March 15, the country had already recorded 8,000 cases and 300 deaths.
‘I chose to stay’
The amount of people falling ill weighed heavily on Spain’s healthcare system. Hospitals had to rapidly adapt to care for the increasing number of Covid-19 cases, including the institution where Celeste was on rotation. It quickly restructured operations, adding a new intensive care unit, expanding the number of beds, bringing in carers and specialists.
“All rotations at Bellvitge University Hospital were suspended until the situation normalised a little,” said Celeste.
Soon she faced a choice. “In my case I was given the option: to choose whether to stay or leave. I chose to stay and help in whatever way I could.”
Celeste admits it was “a difficult moment,” complicated by the adjustment in her own work as she too began focusing on Covid-19, working in the hospital’s diagnostic team.
Faced with national borders being resurrected within the European Union and airlines cancelling wholesale international flights, it must have been a hard choice to stay.
“It actually wasn’t a difficult decision,” she reflects now.
“I’m sure what I want and what I can do to help here. But emotionally I think I went through several stages.
“At first I was concerned and full of fear. I was also on another continent and away from my family. But even if I returned to Argentina, I live in Buenos Aires and my family lives in Tierra del Fuego, so I couldn’t see them anyway.”
Celeste says she was initially fearful amid “some disorganisation,” but felt more comfortable as the hospital’s authorities gained control of the situation.
“I explained my worries to my boss at Bellvitge, but she told me to wait until everyone was reorganised,” she explained. “Now I feel safer with the measures, and the actions that are being taken.”
The pandemic has meant long hours for all healthcare professionals and Celeste says her colleagues are working without pause. At the peak of the crisis, around the end of April, 80 percent of patients being admitted into Bellvitge were for Covid-19.
It’s during the night shifts when the sporadic sound of hands clapping begins to fill balconies and spill out onto the streets. The nightly applause can’t be heard inside of the hospital, but those working know the nation is sounding their appreciation.
“I am amazed at the reaction of the people, and the importance that is given to healthcare workers here,” says Celeste.
“It can be difficult to manage things. I rent a flat with other residents, and like everyone else, we’re not permitted to leave our home, unless it’s to go to the shops for groceries, to the pharmacy for medicine, or to the hospital to work.”
The quiet streets outside are patrolled by police, but inside the hospital, the focus is solely on helping patients. The high intensity of the work contrasts sharply against the dullness of downtime.
Today, cases in Spain have dropped significantly, with just 35 fatalities recorded over the past week. Half of the country has now dropped to “Phase 1,” with loosened restrictions on mobility and the re-opening of small businesses, bars and restaurants with capped capacities.
Bellvitge is gradually recovering, too. Today, just 40 percent of all newly admitted patients are related to Covid-19. Vital surgeries that had been suspended have now been rescheduled.
‘I’ve learned so much’
The intense experience has shifted the course of direction for Celeste. “I originally was working in the TB sector before the pandemic came,” she says. “Then all our efforts were put into prioritising Covid-19. A lot has changed, and I’ve learned so much. I want to take my experience back when I return in winter and help in any way I can.”
Back in Argentina, cases continue to climb, but at a far slower rate than in Western Europe, North America, and the hardest-hit country in South America, neighbouring Brazil. Provinces that have been much less hit by the pandemic are steadily easing out of the lockdown, which has helped keep down the death toll.
As part of the national quarantine, Argentina has placed some of the toughest travel restrictions in the world, including a complete suspension of commercial air travel until the beginning of September – the exception being charter flights as governments try to repatriate their citizens.
One such flight landed during the night of May 28, carrying Celeste back to Buenos
Aires. Once she completes her mandatory 14-day quarantine period, it’ll be time to put on the smocks again and return to her hospital in Lanús – to join another frontline in the fight against Covid-19.