President Alberto Fernández made the headlines a few days ago by squarely blaming the upsurge in coronavirus cases on “the runners,” those for the most part middle-class men and women who like nothing better than galloping up and down city streets, on occasion panting heavily, in what he thinks is an evident effort to infect as many people as possible with their filthy germs. In his view and that of others of a similar disposition, runners belong to an alien species; this must be why the English word for such individuals has been incorporated into the local lexicon, shouldering aside a perfectly good Spanish one. It would seem that, until they came along, only foreign health-nuts keen on aerobics, as the allegedly un-Argentine practice used to be known in this part of the world, made a habit of running a few miles several days a week in order to keep fit.
Ever since the Covid plague reached the country, Peronist politicians and their helpers have been doing their best to persuade folk it was brought here by rich oligarchs who deliberately caught the coronavirus when on holiday in Brazil, Europe, North America, Asia or Australia. Had it not been for them, they want us to believe, Argentina would have remained untouched by the pandemic which had already brought parts of the world grinding to a halt. For days on end, they made the most of what for them was the scandalous case of a young man who returned from Brazil with a surfboard on the roof of his car. In him they saw the perfect symbol of all that was wrong with the country; it was thanks to people who holidayed abroad that back home millions of honest hard-working folk lived below the poverty line.
The desire to persuade people that the coronavirus is by its very nature imperialistic, capitalist, neoliberal and therefore Macrista, pits Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta against the governor of Buenos Aires Province, Axel Kiciloff, who accuses his neighbour – who as well as having been a prominent member of Mauricio Macri’s team is a self-confessed runner – of trying to infect the huge Peronist-dominated slum belt which is ruled from La Plata with the bug. While Rodríguez Larreta desperately wants to loosen things up so porteños can get on with their lives, Kiciloff, who on this issue is backed by Alberto, would like him to force all but those the authorities deem absolutely “essential” to stay behind closed doors for months to come.
Until quite recently, the daily body count favoured the governor because more cases were being recorded in the city, where testing was more frequent, than in the surrounding areas, but a week or so ago the picture changed, with the province drawing ahead. This may not mean much – as far as the medics are concerned, what is now called AMBA, the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, is a single urban sprawl which is home to about a third of the country’s inhabitants – but for the politicians involved the distinction is of prime importance. They see themselves as saviours who value human lives far more than money-grubbing, but fear they will be made to pay a stiff price for the economic and social damage that sooner or later will be attributed to their handling of the lockdowns.
By now it is clear that, while most Argentines are happy enough to “self-isolate” for one or two months in an attempt to steer clear of a dangerous virus, after a while all but the naturally reclusive tend to get increasingly restless. This poses a difficult question. Should the government have delayed putting the country in quarantine and initially tried a “Swedish” policy by relying on the good sense of the country’s inhabitants by asking them politely to keep their distance from one another?
Probably not, but while Alberto saw his approval rating shoot through the roof after taking stern measures before the coronavirus began its grisly work, by acting so quickly he ensured that here the lockdown would last far longer than in the worst hit parts of Europe, with the result that the number of cases is now rising fast just when much of the population is getting thoroughly fed up with being cooped up in flats, houses or makeshift shacks. What is more, the apparent success of the early lockdown Alberto imposed is now playing against him. Many people assume that the virus has already been beaten so it is unreasonable to ask them to stay indoors even if, unlike most of those who live in shantytowns, they think they can well afford to do so.
Such feelings, which are shared by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, are understandable; whether they like it or not, governments everywhere have to take them into account. Though Argentina’s economic plight is worse than that of other countries, just about everywhere people are coming to the conclusion that it is necessary to take into account the material costs of the lockdowns which were pioneered by the Chinese dictatorship and then adopted by most democracies. For them to work, a sizeable majority must agree that, given the circumstances, lockdowns are the least bad option available. For a relatively brief period, the consensus was that going into hibernation, as Boris Johnson put it, was by and large the best thing to do, but more and more men and women, especially the ones who depend for their livelihood on the private sector, think they have dozed off for long enough and are eager to get back on their feet.
Will they be allowed to? Not if the lockdown hawks have their way. As well as the epidemiologists, who are prone to subordinate everything else to slowing the spread of the virus, many leftists and populists want to prolong the status quo indefinitely because they are convinced that the state should play a far greater role in their country’s life. They are fully aware that, as the brunt of the damage is being borne by private firms and their employees, they have been given a chance to take many of them over. This is precisely what Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her many friends are currently trying to do, much to the alarm of those who know that, when all is said and done, it is the private sector which has to foot all the bills and, were it to be reduced to a fraction of its former size, Argentina would end up far poorer than she would otherwise be, which is why so many flag-waving people took to the streets last week to protest against the lady’s attempt to seize control of Vicentín, a cash-strapped soy-crushing company based in Santa Fe Province where, to widespread surprise, Macri beat Alberto Fernández in last October’s presidential elections.