Argentina: There is no economy without health

Latin America is now the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no peak in sight.
“You can recover from a drop in the GDP, but you can’t recover from death.” With that grim but straightforward logic, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández instituted a tough lockdown early in the pandemic to limit the spread of COVID-19.
When the pandemic first hit, Argentine officials took rapid and decisive measures aligned with recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its regional office, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which initially flattened the curve and saved lives.
Currently, the number of new cases is accelerating in the country and topped 100,000 in mid-July, which is wintertime in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet, public pressure is growing to continue opening up the country, already in recession before the pandemic even started, and now facing a projected 7.3% contraction in GDP that could see 45% of the population living in poverty.
At the start of the pandemic, Argentina stood out in the region for its no-nonsense, quick response to the virus. The country announced its first case on March 3, when a man in his 40s tested positive after returning to Buenos Aires from a trip to Milan. Less than two weeks later, President Alberto Fernández decided to close the country’s borders for 15 days to non-residents, and shortly after, mandated a nationwide quarantine.
“They pounced on it,” recalls PAHO/WHO Representative to Argentina, Dr Maureen Birmingham. “They were ready for the initial importation of cases and they’re really proud of that.”
Prioritizing health may seem like a logical choice for some countries, but shutting down the country — and essentially, the economy — was seen as a risky move for a newly elected president presiding over a fragile economy. President Fernández inherited an inflation rate of more than 50% and high sovereign debt, with a third of his country already living in poverty.
Despite the challenging context, he showed that he did not believe in the false dilemma of choosing between health or the economy. He was convinced that saving lives was the more immediate imperative, so he led a decisive strategy to contain the pandemic while preparing the health system, scaling up testing and tracing, and extending social protection measures to reduce socioeconomic hardship.
At the same time, there was considerable community engagement to implement the measures, particularly given the COVID-19 situation at that time in Italy and Spain where many Argentines have strong family and cultural ties. In addition, the President valued having a broad-reaching consultative process in place. Before each major decision, he first consulted with public health experts and established dialogue at the national level and with provincial governors, across political parties, with trade unions and with actors in the private and public sectors. This helped ensure consistent, coherent communication from both national and local leaders, which contributed to the public´s understanding and acceptance of the lockdown measures.
“They were a new government, having taken office in mid-December 2019 with a completely new structure and new people at all levels, and were just starting to familiarize themselves with their new job and each other when the pandemic hit,” explained Dr Birmingham, who has worked in her role in Argentina for almost 5 years and through several leadership changes. “So one role PAHO/WHO played was to help rapidly bridge the gap in institutional memory from the previous administration and serve as a neutral voice during the transition.”

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