From the first time that I wrote about the COVID-19 situation in Argentina, June 8, until the date I am writing this, September 7, things have changed significantly.
First, the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in Argentina has risen to nearly 10,000; the 16th highest death toll in the world. The total number of cases is 500,000; which places Argentina among the top 10 countries for infections worldwide.
These alarming statistics are particularly worrying in Argentina, given a number of additional facts mentioned in my original blog.
First, the high number of deaths and infections, which is not unusual worldwide, contrasts with a highly unusual and exceptional quarantine, for its strictness and length. As of today, the country has imposed almost 6 months — 170 days — of strict quarantine, which makes it one of the most prolonged in the world.
The contrast between the extremely extended quarantine and the poor results in containing COVID-19 prompt reflection on some of the problems in the administration of the crisis.
First, these poor results stem in part from the fact that after months of strict confinement, the population began to disobey the lockdown, and evaded the established restrictions in various ways.
As I understand it, that attitude of popular rebellion, after enormous initial social support for the crisis measures, had to do with the recognition that the government’s initiatives were beginning to show themselves as poorly executed or ill-conceived.
According to the consulting firm Poliarquía, in April of this year, President Alberto Fernández had an approval rating of 84% and a disapproval rating of 9% for his handling of the crisis. He was praised, above all, for his decisive and early response to COVID-19.
But, since then, the approval and disapproval ratings have grown closer together, and are now only 14 points apart — 53% approval and 39% disapproval.
Today, the inertia and insistence on a single response — the clumsily managed and extreme confinement — is criticized even on the grounds of its initial justification to prepare the health system for the pandemic. That justification is no longer understood as that initial strict response was not accompanied by such measures as contact tracing, identification of cases, and follow-up.
As I understand it, these growing problems are driven by one overarching institutional factor, which I pointed out in my initial text: a constitutionally unsustainable procedure for decision-making, which has grown increasingly concentrated and elite: the President and a group he has selected take all manner of decisions in the name of everyone else.
In the beginning, some commentators justified concentrated decision-making in the hands of the executive due to the emergency and the perceived impossibility of having Congress take action. But today it has been months since the legislative branch has resumed its functions, which further undermines the constitutionality of the measures that the executive branch has ordered.
The executive “discretion,” which is being reinforced with this government during the perfect excuse of the pandemic, has been illustrated recently by two key examples, one more serious than the other.
First, there was the sudden attempt at expropriation of the agroindustrial group Vicentin SAIC by the President in an arbitrary and capricious fashion with no formal process. This was a surprising initiative that the President found himself obligated to abandon without any good explanation for what his intention was in the first place.
Second, the President has just recently begun a process for judicial reform, which most people consider to be designed fundamentally to ensure the impunity of the Vice President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (unrelated to the President), who is facing a number of corruption charges.
Although the judicial reform requires a much more extensive reflection than this space allows, briefly I will say that in comparative terms, this Presidential initiative is both surprising and difficult to justify: Why begin a contentious reform process like this, with huge economic cost implications, amid an emergency that precludes public discussion, and at a time when the country’s economy is severely suffering because of the crisis?
In short, the concerns raised in my initial piece on the rule of law in Argentina have only grown stronger based on what the government has done in the intervening months.
Roberto Gargarella is Professor at the University of Buenos Aires and the University Torcuato di Tella and Senior Researcher at the National Research Council, CONICET.