Veronica Nutting: Six-and-a-Half Weeks in Buenos Aires During the Corona Crisis

Verónica Isabella Nutting is a junior at Harvard College studying Computer Science with a secondary in Government from Buenos Aires, Argentina and Wheeling, West Virginia.

 

Oprime aqui para leer el articulo en Español.

 

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Photo from Veronica’s fourth-floor balcony in Buenos Aires and from her room.

 

By Veronica Nutting

            Argentina has been both applauded and criticized for proactive and severe action amidst the corona crisis. As a dual Argentine-American citizen, I was able to go home to Buenos Aires and remain in quarantine there from March 15 to April 29, only returning to the States with my sister when Argentina suspended all inbound/outbound flights until September 1. It was a very difficult decision to leave Argentina and my mother and brother who stayed there.

 

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Dusk outside the Paseo Alcorta in Palermo, April 2020.

 

            I’ll quickly give some demographic, political, and economic context that I think is helpful for understanding Argentina’s response to the corona crisis. Argentina is a country of over 40 million people, nearly 32% of which live in the larger metropolitan area around Buenos Aires. As of 2019, 35.5% of the country lived below the poverty line. This is higher than many of its neighbors--Brazil had a poverty rate of 25.3% in 2018 and Uruguay’s was 8.1% in 2019--as well as the U.S., which had a poverty rate of 11.8% in 2018. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, experts estimate the Argentine poverty rate has already risen to 45%.

            Argentina has a turbulent political history that includes years of Peronism and six coup d’états in the twentieth century, the last which led to a harsh military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. The current president, left-leaning Alberto Fernández, was elected a few months ago in October 2019. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was herself president from 2007-2015 and has faced multiple corruption charges, serves as vice president. Although this regime change fits into the larger “Left Turn,” it also sets Argentina apart from other currently rightwing Latin American neighbors. Amidst the corona crisis, Argentina has withdrawn from future negotiations with the Mercosur trade bloc.

            Lastly, I’ll briefly discuss the Argentine economy. From having the seventh highest income per capita in the world in 1908 and a wealth of natural resources including minerals, agriculture, and energy, Argentina presents an interesting economic puzzle. Argentina has defaulted eight times and, amidst the corona crisis and the continued devaluation of the Argentine Peso, there is international concern that the country will default a ninth time soon. With all of this in mind, I will discuss what being home in Buenos Aires was like during the early weeks of the corona crisis, starting from the very beginning.

            On Tuesday March 10, 2020, Harvard announced that classes would resume virtually after spring break. I called my parents and we decided that it would be best if I went home to Buenos Aires. That day, Argentina imposed a 14-day home quarantine for travellers returning from the US, so I knew as early as then that going home would be completely different this time.

             As that week went on, alongside midterms, moving out, and goodbyes, I kept my eye on Argentina’s response to the corona crisis. On Thursday March 12, Argentina declared a state of health emergency for a year. The country began planning for the closing of universities, museums, restaurants and other public spaces and mass gatherings, as well as fixing hand sanitizer and mask prices.

            At that point, mandatory quarantine was expanded to include not only travelers returning from affected areas but also people in close contact with them and suspected cases. Additionally, the decree suspended all international flights coming from areas of risk for thirty days, with some exceptions for repatriation flights. People found to be violating quarantine or other health measures would be faced with serious sanctions, including prison sentences of up to two years.

            My younger siblings and I were not quite sure what this meant for us flying back from the States to Buenos Aires that weekend. Officially, flights departing from the U.S. before Monday March 16 would be allowed to land. Still, we were pretty nervous. I felt that destabilizing sense of “What is going on” that weeks later has become the norm. What did the 30-day decree mean for my family sprinkled across the US? And for all my Argentine friends studying abroad in Europe and Australia?

            On Saturday March 14, I flew from Boston to Houston. At the airport I met up with my father and brother. As we boarded our overnight flight to Buenos Aires, as we had done countless times before, we remarked that everything seemed normal. Maybe not that much had changed? After all, my sister, who had flown to Argentina the night before, had not had any problems.

            However, a few minutes later, the gate agents stopped boarding, announcing that they had just heard that only Argentine citizens and residents would be accepted in Buenos Aires and that all other passengers could no longer fly. About half of the passengers, including us, had already boarded the plane, so they checked our documents one-by-one, making sure we could all enter the country and removing a few passengers who could not.

            A bit over twelve hours later, my dad, brother and I were on our way to our apartment in the city. My mom had set everything up such that we could all safely complete our 14-day mandatory quarantines from the confines of our home. Things were looking up. Though the past days had been sobering for each of us, we were tired from midterms and looking forward to settling into our isolated lives.

            A few days later, the country entered into a nationwide lockdown, with mandatory strict quarantine for all from March 20th through March 31st. We were not fazed at all at the time. However, this quarantine would eventually extend for weeks, with no clear end in sight. Now looking back, I realize that it makes more sense to think about stages of quarantine rather than end dates. The nationwide, mandatory quarantine would be extended to April 12th, April 26th, and May 10th with limited relaxation and reopening measures. Currently, most expect strict quarantine to continue at least until June.

 

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Empty streets of Palermo during the corona crisis.

 

            In total, I spent 45 days under strict home quarantine. Academically, the first week corresponded to spring break and the last five-and-a-half to the second half of the spring semester. During those 45 days, I left my home five times. On March 31st, I went to the pharmacy. On April 10th, I left my house and bought carrot cake. On April 14th, I dropped some supplies off at my grandma’s house. On April 21, I went to the supermarket. Lastly, on April 27, I went to a doctor’s appointment.

            During these short visits outside, I saw very few other people on the streets of Palermo, the neighborhood where I live. This was pretty surprising to me as I had not been sure if others were observing the quarantine as strictly as we were in my family. After all, I had read countless scandals in the news of people who had violated quarantine and infected others.

 

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Empty streets of Palermo during the corona crisis.

 

However, it appeared that most people around me were indeed staying inside their homes. Most Argentines surveyed throughout my time in Argentina supported preventative quarantine measures, despite their being significant concern about the toll it was taking on the economy and the most vulnerable Argentines. Indeed, a large proportion of the people I saw outside were homeless, highlighting how the corona crisis is exacerbating socioeconomic inequality.

 The only other people I saw outside were police officers, delivery people on bikes and motorcycles, people wearing masks and often gloves carrying reusable supermarket bags, and many people walking their dogs. I noticed a steady decline in the overall density of people outside from the first time I left my apartment to the last. Additionally, there was a steady increase in health measures, with hand sanitizer stations being supplemented with at-the-door temperature checks.

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Social distancing and other new protocols at Carrefour supermarket.

 

            Overall, I cherished my visits outside. They were freeing and refreshing. I tried to make the most of my time inside too. Although virtual classes took up most of my hours in quarantine, I also kept busy with hobbies and other projects. I signed up for the government volunteer program “Mayores Cuidados” but was never matched with anybody. On days when I felt too cooped up, which were most days, I would go to the balcony and read or do stretches. I’d see many of my neighbors there too, on their balconies. Some evenings, we’d all come back out to clap for health-care workers. Other nights, I could hear the loud echoes of cacerolazos, where people would bang on pots and pans in protest of the government releasing prisoners, not lowering politicians’ salaries, and other issues.

As the United States surpasses 1 million confirmed cases while Argentina has fewer than five thousand to date, it becomes less and less clear to me that leaving was the right decision. In this time where I’m reading the news more than ever, I feel simultaneously very connected and very disconnected from the rest of the world.

 

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Empty streets of Palermo during the corona crisis.