As Argentina’s strict quarantine is slowly beginning to be lifted, the country is still grappling with its effects – and experts are warning it will be doing so for months to come.
A new survey by UNICEF released this week revealed that almost six out of ten families in the country have seen their household income drop during the coronavirus pandemic. However, it showed broad support for the compulsory lockdown introduced by the government.
This week, representatives from the UN body met with President Alberto Fernández and published the results of an extensive survey exploring the impact of Covid-19 on the lives of children and adolescents, which has been much harder on those living in vulnerable communities.
“It’s almost common sense. But in this case, common sense is not enough. We really have to have the data,” Dr. Luisa Brumana, an epidemiologist and Argentina’s UNICEF representative who led the survey told the Times. “UNICEF has a responsibility to ensure that the evidence exists on what children live in different circumstances and to use this information for decision making for the right policies for children.”
The numbers are stark, cover a wide range of issues and consistently show that certain sectors are hardest hit for each indicator. More vulnerable households included those that qualify for social security payments, with numerous family members, women-led households or that reside in particular areas of the country, such as Buenos Aires Province, the nation’s most populous region.
“When we asked if people had to stop buying certain food items [due to the shutdown], we had 28.3 percent saying yes — which is one fourth of the population,” Brumana said. “But then if you look at the disaggregation, this went up to 45.3 percent, in the villas. Despite the social protection [measures], there are families that are suffering.”
Of those questioned, 59 percent of all interviewed households reported income loss since quarantine began: that percentage increases to 62 percent in Buenos Aires Province and reaches 70 percent in households that receive Universal Child Allowance (AUH). The percentages increased yet again to 75 percent for numerous families, while 7.2 percent reported at least one job loss in the household – in northeastern Argentina, that rises to 10 percent.
The survey was carried out between April 8 to 15 and interviewed 2,678 households — that represents a statistical universe of 6.1 million households and over 26 million people.
Brumana explained that UNICEF was already working on a multiple indicator cluster survey for Argentina before the lockdown was implemented.
“So when we got into this situation, when we were trying to look at what UNICEF could contribute in Argentina, we quickly saw a way that we could interview more than 2,600 families with children and adolescents that would have national representation of this universe, which is almost half of the population,” Brumana said.
“It is very clear that in this very uncertain world we're living in, any piece of information that is reliable and timely is needed for decision making.”
One area of concern is that of gender-based violence: in 2.4 percent households, women reported being verbally abused and there were reports of physical abuse in 7,992 households (0.13%). In 86 percent of those cases, nothing was done about it, respondents said.
“We are worried about the risk of increased violence against women, which then can affect children, and the possibility of violence against children themselves,” Brumana said. “And we also are worried about the imbalance of the responsibilities that are requested in particular to women.”
A total of 51% of women feel that they are being overburdened with domestic tasks, including cleaning, childcare, helping with homework and cooking.
“What we are trying to do is to respond to the immediate needs and to try to go and find who is most vulnerable,” Brumana said “Then to ensure that we target them with the intervention — or, rather, the other way around, we target the intervention so that it can reach them.”
Brumana and her team presented the information to President Alberto Fernández at the Olivos presidential residence on Wednesday, within 24 hours of requesting a meeting. UNICEF does not participate in the government’s decision-making process, but their input did not go unnoticed – for example, one issue that came up was that of allowing children to be permitted outside for a limited amount of time, a measure that is now being analyzed by the government.
“My role is to put issues on the table. But how to do this, the timing where — these are all questions that I could not answer,” Brumana told the Times.
On a positive note, the survey revealed broad support for the measures that have been put in place. Despite the negative consequences, 96.2 percent agreed that the mandatory quarantine was necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In fact, 99.3 percent of adolescents interviewed said they thought that it was necessary.
“Someone today asked me how this was possible because we are all fed up, but this is not what we asked,” Brumana said. “People are fed up, but what this indicator says is that they understand that this is a measure towards their health.”
For Brumana and the UNICEF team, this indicates that government measures have been well communicated and implemented. According to the survey, 93 percent of those that received the new Tarjeta Alimentar food stamp card had no problem in using it, while 84 percent of households that need social protection measures such as AUH or the new emergency family income (IFE) were able to access them.
“The government has put a lot of special measures increasing social protection benefits. And it's very interesting and positive, that it seems that the reach of these measures is quite high,” said the UNICEF official. “Thirty-five percent of households said they are receiving one or more of those benefits, showing that they are well distributed.”
Brumana told the Times that there are already plans to implement a follow-up study in a couple of months and that they will be sharing their database with interested parties.
“We want to do sectoral deep dives, there is so much more information than has been analysed,” Brumana explained. “One [survey] in education and another in social protection have already been agreed upon. We are in touch with the two ministers and their teams.”
When asked if UNICEF had any particular concerns when it came to easing the lockdown, Brumana said that the situation changes so quickly that it would be difficult to say, though she emphasised the crisis was also an opportunity to implement long-term plans, using education as an example.
“We need to start preparing for a safe return to school, whenever that happens,” Brumana said. “The school of tomorrow won't be the same school the kids left a month and a bit ago. We know that there are certain things that may need to be modified, so we can use this as an opportunity to improve what we were doing before.”