Argentina’s COVID–19 Lessons

The United States’ COVID-19 response has paled in many respects to Argentina’s. But it’s not just Argentina’s public health response that the United States should learn from — it’s also the country’s history of popular resistance that will be crucial to fighting unequal and undemocratic responses to the pandemic.

A client waits outside "Farmacia de la Estrella" on April 8, 2020 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Marcelo Endelli / Getty

In the United States, mainstream coverage of COVID-19 outbreaks in the rest of the Americas has been characterized by some jealousy of Canada’s measures or horror at Brazil, whose president is perhaps the only major world leader handling it worse than Trump. Argentina, however, has gotten relatively little attention, though their example contrasts sharply to that of the United States: faster, more unified, and harsher.

Argentina’s measures are strict, justified to some extent but also bringing back memories of repression and dictatorship, with police patrolling public space, arresting quarantine violators, and putting them in mortal danger. But their history of popular organization and resilience in the face of crisis is an example to learn from. Demanding that the economy work for everyone, that the government recognize its crimes and negligence, and that basic rights be respected even in times of crisis are lessons the United States must carry forward.

Argentina’s Response

Argentina’s recent history has been turbulent. Since the 1950s, the country has seen several military governments. The most recent ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 and was responsible for the deaths of as many as 30,000, tortured and killed in secret prisons. When democracy returned in the 1980s, it came with one neoliberal economic shock after another, leaving the country with a history of sudden, massive inflation, debt crisis, and dozens of deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Before the pandemic the biggest news in the country was the return of the center-left Peronists to power with the presidency of Alberto Fernandez in December 2019. Fernandez spent his first few months in office implementing monetary controls, negotiating with the IMF, working with the country’s largest labor union, and reaching out to old regional allies. Now, of course he has a new crisis to handle, with criticism of his response coming from the Right and Left.

Coronavirus officially arrived in Argentina relatively late, the first confirmed case identified on March 3. The patient was an Argentine citizen who had just returned to Buenos Aires after visiting Milan, Italy. He went to a private medical clinic on March 1 presenting symptoms of the virus and was quickly isolated from other patients. The Argentine Health Ministry took the case seriously and tried to contain the spread of infection. Meanwhile the President and Health Ministry began preparing the public health system for a wider emergency.

Unfortunately, two weeks later, more cases had been reported throughout the country. In response, Argentina moved on to a national shutdown of all nonessential activity. By this point just over 150 confirmed cases of the virus were confirmed with only three deaths. In comparison, Italy had a similar number of cases and deaths on February 23 and had only just begun locking down their northern provinces and banning mass gatherings.

President Fernandez announced the policy on Thursday March 19, to go into immediate effect morning of Friday, March 20. The measures, which translate as “Mandatory and Preventative Social Isolation,” are being enforced by Argentina’s military, national police, and provincial and metropolitan police, much like in the United States and elsewhere. Unlike the United States, the Argentine police immediately began taking serious measures to punish violators of the law.

The first arrest made under the new provisions occurred in the early morning on March 20 in Córdoba, when a young man was confronted by a group of municipal police officers and asked what his business was being outside. His response, “No tengo que darle explicaciones a nadie” (“I don’t have to explain myself to you”) was punishable by six months to two years in prison. He was only one of sixty-five people confronted in Córdoba alone for violating the quarantine that first day.

Contrast this response with the United States, where the first case of the virus was identified in January but even the earliest shelter-in-place orders weren’t issued until mid-March. Even now, there are states where there is no shelter-in-place law, whereas in Argentina the decree is national, covering urban Buenos Aires and sparsely populated Patagonia.

The Argentine law restricts travel to the nearest supermarkets, pharmacies, and a handful of other basic necessities, while in the United States, even video game stores and megachurches have argued that they are essential. Argentina closed its borders before their lockdown, while in the United States they remain open for some business and travel. President Fernandez immediately sought foreign aid during the crisis. It took Trump months to accept the idea that other countries, and particularly China, might be able to supply the United States with needed supplies and expertise.

Lacking the ability to do the kind of universal testing seen in countries like South Korea, social distancing remains the only option to fight the spread of the disease in both Argentina and the United States. President Fernandez says its enforcement is to be “inflexible.” Argentina’s recent history of military government lends a different tone to this than in Paris or Milan.

Middle-aged Argentines can remember a time when being confronted by a group of police on the street could mean being kidnapped, months of torture in secret locations, and possibly death. Given the already terrible conditions of the Argentine prison system, jail time for violating the quarantine likely means infection and risks even more violence on the part of the guards or other prisoners. Deadly prison uprisings occurred within days of the lockdown announcement.

Argentina’s response to the virus outbreak has been strict and swift, but that hasn’t stopped its spread. Already thirty-six people have died of the virus only one month since the first confirmed case, with the first death following the first case by only a few days. This puts Argentina in much the same position as the United States, with social distancing measures likely to last for months rather than weeks and major economic collapse on the horizon. For now, it will have to rely on policing measures and its mixed private/public health care system while waiting for the development of a vaccine or other effective treatment.

But Argentines, more than many in the United States, are used to sudden, massive shocks to the economy and society that take years or decades to resolve. In response to these crises, they’ve organized.

Fighting Our Way Out

There’s the history of resistance to the last dictatorship, the most famous example being the Madres del Plaza de Mayo, a collective of women whose children or grandchildren were disappeared by the last dictatorship. Today they are universal symbols of resilience and resistance. Argentina was a center of the recent wave of feminist marches in Latin America, calling for abortion rights, an end to misogynist violence, and justice for the LGBTQ community. But perhaps the most hopeful example to draw on in this crisis and the coming economic troubles is the legacy of “horizontalidad,” or horizontalism.

Horizontalidad describes the popular democratic organizing that swept Argentina during the 2001 economic crisis, which resulted in unemployment numbers much like those expected in the United States due to social distancing. In response, Argentines organized unions of the unemployed and demonstrated for public relief rather than the payment of international debt. They worked with networks of resistance such as the Madres and existing leftist parties. Workers reclaimed their empty factories and started production as cooperatives. Neighborhood assemblies helped to provide for peoples’ needs on a local level, occupying abandoned buildings and remaking them as community centers and meeting spaces.

Horizontalidad was far from perfect. Like the Occupy movement in the United States, it focused on self-help and camaraderie and largely eschewed engagement with the state. Direct democracy can be anarchic or end up controlled by a privileged few, and is effectively impossible in times of social distancing. And its rejection of the state is the exact opposite of what’s needed at a time of crisis like this one, in which the state is the only body sufficient to coordinate a coherent response to a pandemic. Still, grassroots solidarity and political organizing will be necessary in the United States both during and after the pandemic.

The lessons Argentines learned in the 1970s, in 2001, and in 2008 — that governments will use state violence to control residents, that the economy doesn’t work for the majority, that popular organizing is key in response to these dangers — are lessons that the residents of countries all over the world should heed in the coming months and years.

Austerity and government indifference force people to rely on cultures of collective support and mutual aid to survive difficult times. They can’t be romanticized as the end goal. Filling the gaps left by the government’s failure to provide for basic needs will keep people alive, but it won’t transform the economy without political education and organizing to demand that the massive power amassed by the government and private corporations be put to public use.

Argentina’s recent history of popular organizing has much to teach people in the United States and elsewhere. Community organizing and solidarity not only help people survive repression and recession — they give people hope and purpose when they need it most. But one of the most important lessons from the last decades of Argentine history is that this kind of resistance isn’t enough. Unions and associations of the unemployed can be co-opted by establishment political figures, and protests and organizing can be met with violent, even deadly police repression.

Organizers in the United States will have to anticipate these setbacks and prepare themselves for a struggle that will last far longer than the pandemic itself. They will need to build power not just to fight today’s problems but tomorrow’s, to move beyond the local and particular, to be ready when repression comes, and to move forward despite setbacks or loss.

A global crisis can’t be solved locally. Overcoming the pandemic and recession will require state power and international cooperation. This means following the Argentine example and organizing workers, the unemployed, and the victims of state violence not just for their own sake but to pressure the government and build power for the future. It means demanding public health care that can coordinate resources and provide for people when they lose their jobs, and working with neighboring countries rather than threatening to cut off vital supplies. It means following Argentines of the twenty-first century and Americans of the twentieth in forming unions of the unemployed to demand jobs programs and benefits, that the government bailout its people rather than its corporations.

These campaigns won’t be welcomed by any US government, Republican or Democrat, because they challenge fundamental assumptions about the economy and the international order. But that’s precisely why these campaigns are the only way out of the coming recession, which shows all signs of dwarfing Argentina’s in 2001 or the United States’ in 2008 to rival the Great Depression itself.

In the United States those lessons are history, but in Argentina they are the living memory of millions. Argentines know that times of uncertainty can’t just be waited out. They have to be answered with popular power. Only then can there be hope of coming out of the crisis not just having survived, but ready to build a better world.