Postcard From Argentina

26 October 2020

by Thucydides

I see you have already received a lot of postcards from around the world, but none yet from the country with the longest and most irrational quarantine on the planet! So, allow me to fill in some of the gap (be warned, this gets long).

I am a professor in an area of the social sciences (non-woke) related to international politics, and also do some policy analysis for a private institution. Although I miss meeting my students (online classes are in no way a replacement for in-person interaction), I am lucky that my work was not interrupted by the lockdown, my financial position is secure enough that I am well prepared to ride this out. But millions of people are not.

South America being so far from the initial outbreaks, we had the benefit of seeing the pandemic unfold earlier almost everywhere else, but it did not do us much good. The images from northern Italy made a strong impression here, since so many people here are descended from Italian immigrants and our cultures have much in common.

So, in late March, the Government decided to lock down hard, with the well known argument of flattening the infection curve to allow our inadequate third-world health system to cope with the expected influx of patients.

A newly-installed Government facing an already severe economic crisis saw a shortcut to hero status and increased popularity by playing up the pandemic, which at the same time allowed them to shift blame for the results of their disastrous economic initiatives onto the virus. Officials have time and again pinned the economic misery on the pandemic, rather than their extreme lockdown. Death porn, case counters, and hysteria became part of the regular newsfeed, and plenty of people joined the ritual of clapping for healthcare personnel every night at 9pm. Your readers already know the drill.

From the beginning, it seemed that most people had promptly graduated from the University of Google as armchair infectious disease experts and epidemiologists, and rational lockdown sceptics were dutifully grouped with flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers, and dismissed. Everyone had an opinion about the pandemic, and as elsewhere, the disease became politicised (except for face masks, which sadly seem to enjoy bipartisan consensus).

At the beginning, police checkpoints were everywhere, and masking was mandatory almost from the start. Schools and universities have been shut ever since, and public transport use for non-essential workers was banned outright. According to one count, on average one out of every 10 citizens got a ticket for violating the lockdown somehow.

A diagnostic app was rolled out, and it turned out to be predictably invasive of privacy and laughingly insecure. The Government attempted to make it mandatory twice, only to be frustrated by low compliance, and the inescapable reality that 15 to 20% of the mobile phones in the country could not run it, not to speak of the large numbers of elderly and poor people who don’t own smartphones at all.

At one point, the city Government of Buenos Aires attempted to require elderly folks to call a hotline to get permission to leave their own house for any non-essential task, the idea being that some poor Government call centre employee would patronisingly explain to them all the risks (as if they had been living in some bubble or under a rock) and attempt to persuade them to stay at home. The most ridiculous thing? The elderly were expected to call and request permission to leave their home every time they needed to go out! And if they left their home without permission, they were threatened with – community service! (Presumably outside the home? One can only guess). The resulting outrage, not least from the elderly themselves, forced the city Government to backtrack rather quickly, not least because was no practical way to enforce this policy anyway.

Since I qualify as an “exempted worker” (which means I did not have to lock down, but I am not allowed to use public transport), I have been able to travel through the interior of the country for work-related reasons. In the countryside the picture looks different to the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area. Local mayors have often reacted to the pandemic like medieval peasants, blocking most access roads to their towns with earth or concrete barriers, and instituting nonsensical additional measures to try to keep the virus out of their communities.

The only consistent criterion for policy adoption and implementation seems to be “monkey see, monkey do”, with local leaders copying each others dumbest ideas without regard to any actual science or cost-benefit analysis. In most places I have been to, whenever you want to enter a town, you have to drive through a disinfection area that will spray the outside of your vehicle as you come in. I have repeatedly argued how ridiculous this is – after all, if someone were sick, the virus would be inside the car, and not stuck on the outside surfaces. Makes as much sense (none) as disinfecting shoe soles, or spraying disinfectant on outdoor sidewalks.

In plenty of towns they will not allow people who do not live there to enter, which makes life very difficult for a lot of people whose work depends on travel, like rural contractors (not to mention that internal borders like these are patently unconstitutional). Although I have not witnessed it directly, I have been told of some jurisdictions, like San Juan province, that would fix tamper-proof tape on the doors of vehicles passing through the district to ensure no one left or entered the vehicle while crossing between entry and exit checkpoints – not even to buy food or go to a toilet. The fact that car windows can still be rolled down seems to have eluded these bureaucratic geniuses somehow. This is reportedly the province where some Covid-positive people were sealed into their own homes with tamper-proof tape during their quarantine.

Hotels are mostly closed, so travellers are often forced to sleep in their parked vehicles at some petrol station, like truckers do. Only in the last couple of weeks have I seen these restrictions lifted in some towns, but by no means a majority yet.

By now the quarantine in Argentina has surpassed the 200-day mark – needless to say, we had one of the strictest and most senseless lockdowns in the world, with no positive effect whatsoever. The lockdown is increasingly a fiction, albeit a very costly fiction. Plenty of Government officials and medical advisers who patted themselves on the back at the beginning of the pandemic have painted themselves into a very uncomfortable corner, now that our infections and deaths have gone up far enough to put us among the worst performing countries in the world. The infectious disease experts that provided advice to the Government, metaphorically following their prevention guidelines, have in recent days started to ‘socially distance’ themselves from the lockdown policy, and ‘wash their hands’ with regards to the disastrous outcome.

The low point of economic activity was April, the only month most people actually complied with the lockdown, but compliance has been on a downward curve ever since as people increasingly need to go back to work, and the Government cash handouts and subsidies fall short. The economic situation has turned dire for too many people, so ironically the Government finds itself forced to ease restrictions during the worst of the outbreak.

In the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, things were complicated by the political infighting between the national and provincial Governments (in the hands of the incumbent party) and the city Government (a longtime bastion of the opposition party), which made coordinating policy very difficult. The city, seeing the situation under control, has moved to reopen most activities, while the province and the national Government attempted to double down on the restrictions. But the people are increasingly fed up with the lockdown, and compliance is slipping fast. Nightlife is slowly returning, despite the midnight curfew for alcohol sales, and internal borders will slowly open up again next month.

“Protocol” became everyone’s new fetish word, since it holds the promise of a return to a semblance of normality. Now, every time a store or venue opens up for work again, they always loudly declare that it is safe because they have “protocols” in place (whatever that means, since the specifics of such protocols are usually not discussed in detail). The magic word seems to imply some sort of protective effect.

In the past couple months, our local media have finally started to catch up (albeit slowly) with sceptics’ arguments about lockdown costs, the quality of reporting and data, false positive rates, increasing morbidity from delayed treatments, the coming surge in undetected cancers, herd immunity, focused protection, and more. One can only hope that journalists will finally start to do their damn jobs and start asking hard questions instead of feasting on death porn and sob stories.

Our economy will be badly hurt, worse than the UK. We expect a GDP contraction of at least 12% this year. A history of cyclical economic crises has made our economy pretty resilient, but I fear this crisis will break the proverbial camel’s back. The Government has no surplus, no financing, and tax revenue has collapsed, so there is no other way out of this than printing new money, basically. Any illusions of bringing our two-digit inflation under control are long gone, so the future looks bleak. At the very least, I suppose I can find a silver lining in the fact that my country is not in danger of breaking up.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some colleagues and I tried to figure out likely scenarios for the near future and how this might affect our areas of interest in international politics. At the time, I risked a few predictions among close friends and fellow analysts. Based on the evolving pandemic and the available information, I thought we were heading for some sort of a repeat of the 2009-2010 swine flu scare, with a perhaps somewhat deadlier virus this time. At the same time, I did not yet know details of the existing emergency plans countries had for a pandemic, but I assumed lessons learned from avian flu and swine flu panics would have been incorporated and result in a lesser overreaction.

Needless to say, I was wrong on both counts. As your readers already know by now, rational, science-based pandemic plans quickly flew out the window as panic ensued among world leaders and everyone started improvising and copying each other.

Stanley Cohen’s description of moral panics fits our current situation quite well, and once you realise this you can immediately see the parallels with other moral panics, like the “war on terror”, or the “war on drugs” – basically, around a small kernel of real risk, an immense air castle of self-serving public policy and bureaucracy is constructed, by means of threat inflation, beyond any rational proportion. And this current “war on Covid” is probably the greatest moral panic in the history of mankind.

Amidst the hysteria of the mainstream echo chambers, Lockdown Sceptics has been a rare oasis of sanity and rational discourse, so please keep up the good work!

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