Argentina’s Response to COVID-19: Impacts, Strengths, and Weaknesses

Fernando Gabriel Zarabozo, NESA Alumnus and Researcher, Public Policy and National Security

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has presented us with a crisis that few of us could have imagined in 2020.  Since late November 2019, we started to receive news from Wuhan, China of an extremely contagious respiratory illness.  COVID-19 gradually spread to other countries, particularly affecting Iran, South Korea, European countries, and now the United States.

In the early stages, the World Health Organization (WHO) was conservative in its response to the outbreak and the potential spread outside China.  Eventually, the WHO realized that it was dealing with a pandemic and that all countries should be alerted to prepare for significant outbreaks simultaneously.

Scientists all over the world started working urgently to develop tests for diagnostics, drugs, vaccines and treatments. Some Chinese scientists played an important role in identifying the virus and its particularities.

That same urgency was not always taken by some governments, some of which had very different focuses and priorities; although, the Chinese government response deserves a special analysis that surpasses the objective of this article.

In the case of Argentina, the Minister of Health stated on January 22, 2020 that “There is no possibility that COVID-19 will reach Argentina,” arguing that it had different climate and seasonal considerations.[1]  Unfortunately, he was absolutely wrong.[2] At the time the Health Minister made that statement, his office was preoccupied with implementing another policy, namely the “legal, free and secure right to abortion”.[3]   This initiative was a new Argentinian government decision announced by President Alberto Fernandez in 2019 after he took in Office[4].

This is not to argue for or against abortion rights, but rather to say that the Health Ministry had its priorities wrong in singularly focusing Argentina’s already scarce human/technical/economic resources on this issue while ignoring what was happening in China and other countries as the virus rapidly spread.  At a minimum, we could say that Argentina was distracted by this policy when the threat was starting to surface and spread.  This was a mistake in policy terms.  A state must recognize threats and risks and determine and prioritize its responses.  This did not happen in Argentina.

Once the Minister of Health and other officials realized that their initial proclamations were wrong – as they watched it ravage parts of Spain and Italy, and cases started appearing in Argentina – only then did the government change direction and started implementing more restrictive actions, such as social distancing and mobility reduction measures.

The government started by implementing a “voluntary quarantine” policy, only suggesting that the population should consider the risks of the contagion and stay home.  Unfortunately, most people ignored this advice and continued going about business as usual, with few exceptions.[5]  In the meantime, confirmed cases continued increasing, and news coming from Spain and Italy showed things were spiraling out of control.

Finally, the Argentinian Government implemented a “mandatory quarantine,” [6] essentially halting the economy and government functions, with the exception of essential health, medical, security, military, and food services.  Unfortunately, some wealthy citizens started buying up lots of medical and protective products, drastically reducing the availability for emergency personnel, hospitals and health centers.  At the same time, many citizens (as many as 3,000) continued to violate the quarantine.  Some violators were briefly arrested or had their vehicles confiscated.

While it is important to take measures to protect the life of our citizens, it is necessary consider the impact of quarantine on society and the economy, especially in poorer communities.  There are many people who work in the informal economy – such as construction, painting, cleaning, landscaping, etc. – who are unable to work and afford food and basic essentials to survive.  The state should actively support these people, otherwise, there are potential risks of looting and increase in crime.

The army and law enforcement should help in providing some food and essential services to poor communities, although it would be difficult for the Argentinian government to sustain this over a long period, due to costs and the lack of expert bureaucracy oriented to social services/demands.  The country does have a bureaucracy focused on reducing poverty, but the organizations and officials within it are beholden to the demands of certain political parties and syndicates, as well as various patronage systems, thereby reducing efficiency and facilitating corruption.

Not all public organizations are in the same condition, however. The military is prepared to deal with the gravity of the situation, but it has a different mission.  While the military could confront the challenge, for various historical and political reasons, the use of the army for this situation would reveal a lack of confidence in other agencies and could increase tensions with certain segments of the population.  For many reasons, Argentinian policymakers have a reduced capacity to deal with this situation, and the politicized civil bureaucracy are in the same boat.

This kind of crisis requires a national strategy – as well as linked sectoral strategies – to confront it. Unfortunately, the tools required are absent in the Argentinean state bureaucracy.  There is no planning, and improvisation is the rule, rather than the exception, as reflected in how the county dealt with COVID-19 early on.

In addition, high policymakers and the state bureaucracy don’t use one important tool – that is, “strategic intelligence” – which is critical in assessing risks and impacts, and projecting urgent courses of action.   This could have been used to provide health officials with a solid knowledge base and a range of responses, for example, canceling flights from abroad and putting those returning in quarantine in coordination with other countries.  It could have helped authorities anticipate and avoid the damage resulting from the mass buying and hoarding of essential medical and protective products by some citizens.

The Argentinian government also lacked proper international coordination from the beginning. It could have coordinated with other countries and identified and quarantined Argentinians who were abroad for 14 days[7] within appropriate facilities, as well as having identified citizens from outside Argentina who were visiting or transiting the country.

In spite of other epidemics and pandemics over the last two decades, many countries still have difficulty in cooperating and coordinating to confront these challenges.  This must change, and all countries and relevant authorities must start taking this more seriously and thinking about how to deal with future outbreaks, which are likely inevitable.  Crises like COVID-19 continue to reveal our defects and deficits. In the case of Argentina, it shows a lack of anticipation and ability to recognize problems, assess risks, evaluate probable impacts, and consider possible responses and solutions in the short, medium and long term.

Indeed, the Argentinian case has mostly demonstrated improvisation, sudden changes of directions, and confusion not only for citizens and top-level policymakers, but for other policymakers and actors that could secondarily support efforts to confront the pandemic.

COVID-19 has spread to all continents; some countries do not have high numbers of infections, although that could easily change.  I believe we have two future missions: each country should assess how to confront such crises on national and international (cooperation) levels, and we must all think through how our countries and the world will look when this is finally over. Will it be back to business as usual? In Argentina, I hope that we will take away some lessons for the future.

[1] In Argentina, it was summertime.

[2] In Argentina, there were 2,669 cases and 122 deaths as of April 17, 2020  https://www.infobae.com/politica/2020/04/02/confirmaron-132-nuevos-casos-de-coronavirus-en-la-argentina-y-el-numero-de-infectados-asciende-a-1265/

[3] https://www.laizquierdadiario.com/CABA-exigen-la-adhesion-al-protocolo-de-Interrupcion-Legal-del-Embarazo

[4] https://www.pagina12.com.ar/229545-aborto-legal-la-campana-nacional-saludo-el-pronunciamiento-d


[5] https://www.lanacion.com.ar/sociedad/coronavirus-argentina-cuarentena-voluntaria-nid2344048

[6] https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202003/439998-fernandez-confirmo-el-decreto-para-cuarentena-obligatoria.html

[7] Time determined to diagnose the disease. See some references about the  illness and virus in Interviews with Dr. Michael Osterholm and Barry Bloom, both in Top of Mind 2020´s Black Swan: Coronavirus. Goldman Sachs. Global Macro Research.