A new year can also bring new perspectives, even if there are no guarantees – often enough, those using that proverbial phrase “Time will tell” find time only telling them time. Last year dawned in Argentina with a brand-new government, only to start all over again with lockdown on the last day of summer. In many ways this summer sees the global Covid-19 shock of 2020 stretching into 2021 but, as Heraclitus told us 2,500 years ago, nobody steps into the same river twice – the jerky and error-strewn launch of vaccination campaigns marks a new phase in the pandemic and with it some subtle changes in perspective.
One of the many shocks caused by the miniscule coronavirus was its initial neutron bomb impact on globalisation with the nation-state back and standing tall. Such catastrophic data as last April’s 26.4 percent plunge in economic output convinced this newspaper at least that those continuing to defend a market economy (like those resisting last June’s Vicentin expropriation bid) were swimming against an irreversible tide – rather than doubting the inevitability of a bigger state in a post-pandemic world, the way ahead lay in demanding a better state than the current bloated and dysfunctional public sector with this presidency switching its priority from judicial to state reform. Yet half a year later this vision is looking increasingly unsustainable.
Much of the problem here stems from the Frente de Todos administration reversing its priorities in the wrong direction – instead of any major long-range state reform including the creation of a professional civil service, the government has moved firmly into electoral gear as from last month. At that time the government trusted in having at least three cards contributing to a winning hand – mass vaccination to banish the Covid-19 carnage, positive growth rates for the first time since 2017 and an agreement with a complacent International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ensure financial stability at least until the elections.
All three of these electoral props have faltered since then. The main pivot for a more upbeat public mood is clearly mass vaccination, especially given the lockdown fatigue which is taking violent forms in some parts of the world, but this is proving far less simple than the jab itself. Argentina has to find its way in a planet of geopolitical tensions accompanying both supply and demand where the vaccine is concerned – multi-billion demand for doses barely reaching millions thus far with multiple logistical bottlenecks, while the competition to produce the antidote among nations has become almost the arms race of this century with plenty of profiteering in the private sector, instead of any international response to this global plague (beyond such initiatives as the World Health Organisation's Covax scheme).
Ruling out the possibility of this year’s economic data being worse than last year’s would seem the safest of these three bets but even this is running into problems. This year’s midterm election campaign will mostly be in the third quarter and thus based on the economic data of the second quarter, which promise to be the best of all – when measured against a 2020 plunge of minus 19.1 percent, the growth figure for this quarter could be extremely impressive while most grain export dollars are also due in this period. Yet hopes of recouping at least half last year’s double-digit losses are fading with this year’s growth now downscaled to 4.5 percent amid continuing stagnation and advancing inflation.
Thirdly, Economy Minister Martín Guzmán keeps plugging away with the IMF but most observers both at home and abroad see an agreement as an even longer shot than the Tokyo Olympics – a Frente de Todos in full campaign mode is increasingly averse to the political costs of corrective action while counting on stronger world commodity prices to lend it margin.
Theories of challenge and response might lead to expectations of new state dimensions rising to meet this pandemic – calling for “the biggest public health effort in the history of humanity” in the words of Bill Gates (even if the death tolls so far is about 0.03 percent of world population, as against around three percent with Spanish flu while the Black Death exterminated a third of Europe). But the cack-handed management of vaccination only shows up the same incompetent, authoritarian and autistic state as always with petty electioneering now obtruding – not only bottlenecking vaccination in the government but even in one faction of the ruling coalition (La Cámpora). Everybody needs to go back to school but even that has fallen into question.