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OP-ED | 20-03-2021 08:40

A year of living dangerously

Thursday’s nationwide broadcast was widely criticised and mocked, but in his guarded and indirect manner President Fernández was telling it like it is regarding a central problem which too many ignore.

Today marks the first anniversary of the imposition of strict quarantine throughout Argentina and, even if that Q-word has virtually disappeared from the official discourse, there is no guarantee against there being a second anniversary of restrictive measures next year – especially after hearing the bleak tone of the nationwide broadcast delivered by President Alberto Fernández on Thursday evening. Some medical experts are talking of coronavirus becoming endemic.

And yet last week’s news panorama was anything but a steady build-up towards today’s anniversary with a solemn stock-taking of a full year of grim co-existence with Covid-19 – even Thursday’s nationwide broadcast, which was fully addressed to the central problem of the pandemic in general and vaccine delays in particular, was interpreted by several analysts as an attempt to distract attention from previous president Mauricio Macri’s book launch the same day and steal his headlines, rather than dealing with any issue of importance. But far more pundits dedicated their analysis to last Monday’s change in the Justice Ministry helm and its implications.

Yet this editorial would see both the executive branch’s clash with the judicial and Macri’s book launch as distractions from the main problem of the pandemic, rather than the other way round. What other government on this planet has made judicial reform its top priority in the past year? The reasons for taking this judicial reform drive (widely seen as more geared towards impunity for Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her cohorts than preventing any repetition of the Maia kidnap, for example) so seriously are obvious enough but all the verbal fireworks accompanying Martín Soria’s advent in the Justice Ministry may well be overrated. If the vice-president could not “democratise justice” in 2013 when president with an electoral mandate of 54 percent under her belt and majorities in both houses of Congress, why should she be any more successful in this year’s far more complex scenario? This judicial onslaught has every appearance of a paper tiger while the microscopic coronavirus is a far more dangerous beast, already claiming almost 55,000 lives in this country.

Perhaps the best advice for today’s anniversary would be to avoid extremes. Almost unanimous social acceptance of one of the world’s strictest quarantines made it a sanitary success in its first months but the damage to the socio-economic fabric has led to it being subsequently seen as overkill. The more recent relaxations have served to revive some economic sectors but could leave the country more vulnerable to a second pandemic wave which might already be arriving next month, especially given the vaccine delivery delays which so worry the president, with barely one percent of the population double-dosed.

This plea for the middle ground should be extended to attitudes towards the president. Around last Easter “Captain Alberto” enjoyed approval ratings of 84 percent (according to an independent pollster) with his hands-on confrontation of the pandemic but his popularity has fallen by over half since then, apparently commanding increasingly less respect even within government ranks.

Yet even if 15 months of Fernández has led to an impression of zero correlation between what he says and what he does, his approach to the pandemic has been remarkably honest and consistent for a politician. Right at the outset he said that he placed public health above the economy “because the economy can bounce back but not the dead” and he was true to that approach – in midyear Argentina’s death toll was still in three digits while heading towards being one of the few countries in the world to post double-digit economic shrinkage for 2020. Thursday’s nationwide broadcast was widely criticised and/or mocked but in his guarded and indirect manner he was telling it like it is regarding a central problem which too many ignore. British diplomats were long (and perhaps still are) sent out here with the Foreign Office advice: “Nothing in Argentina is ever as good or as bad as anybody says it is” and that should apply to this president. The head of a flawed and fragmented coalition but also this country’s elected leader, he should command more respect for the presidential office in these troubled times.

An important anniversary today but in the final analysis just another day among too many in a life disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.    

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