The implosion of Argentina's economy puts a timer on the quarantine. The worst option is to not have an exit plan.
The worst scenario is not the eternal quarantine that destroys the economy, nor the abrupt return to normality and the overflow of contagion. For Argentina, the risk is lying to ourselves, the national pastime. That the President and the Governors warn about relentless tightening of the regulations, of total confinement, of fines and other sanctions, while the people slowly take to the streets, without measures of containment or orderly plans from the Government.
This is not an alarmist prophecy. It is already happening. On Monday the use of cars in the nation's capital increased by 20 percent. This are official numbers. In the suburbs, more and more economic sectors are returning to work, in a clandestine way. Factories that turn off the lights at the front, that limit production to one shift, that claim to be working on essential supplies for the pandemic. They are not "crooks", these are desperate people because they are going to be left without a business and without a job. The owner of DĂˇnica explained this to Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof: He has no one to sell his margarine to.
Sun Tzu is the clichĂ© of political quotes but let me use him one more time. In the Art of War, he posits that the most dangerous moment in battle is the retreat. The moment that demands the most discipline and cohesion, the worst thing that can be done is to disband, because that' s when they hunt you down like flies. An orderly retreat saves lives. The world's conversation is no longer about the pandemic, it is about how and when we are going to get out of the quarantine.
On Monday, Spain switched on all of its economic sectors, except for tourism, gastronomy and public shows. Millions of people went back to work. This is one of the three countries that the virus has hit the hardest. It managed to lower the daily death toll from 900 to 500. This Monday there were 517 deaths. Economic recovery does not mean the end of the lockdown, but the managed and safe return of those workers who cannot work from home.
Macron also announced this Monday that on May 11 France will restart the economy, adding that after the summer, classes will resume. A very risky decision, since schools are major centers of contagion. He explained that many children do not have internet and therefore are being left out of formal education, which is an intolerable inequality. France had 574 deaths from Coronavirus on Monday. On May 11, when the country resumes activity, it will have gone through exactly eight weeks of total quarantine.
Argentina is one of the few countries that started the hardest quarantine measures at the earliest stage. And the results are there to be seen. This Monday there were three deaths. But the weather -if it has any influence- is playing against us: we are entering winter, a season that is supposed to favor the virus circulation. This suggests a very distant horizon for the return to normalcy, around September.
The discussion is not about the effectiveness of the quarantine, in fact Argentina is a good practical example of its effectiveness. The challenge is to implement an orderly withdrawal before the economy collapses and the social and even psychological damage becomes unbearable. There are no magic recipes and it is not a one-way street, but we need an exit plan that gives certainty.
The biggest compliment Macron received with his announcement on Monday was that he laid out dates for concrete measures. Societies need, above all, predictability. Alberto Fernandez's phrase, when he announced that he was extending the quarantine until April 26 and said, "we'll see", is pragmatic but it generates a level of uncertainty that can disrupt a society that is already tied with pins. We have an economy that was already in a recession and can mutate - if it hasn't already - into a depression like we haven't seen for decades. Argentina does not have the support of the European Union, nor the Federal Reserve, to navigate the fall with hard currency issuance. Here we live from day to day.
So, the medical criterion is clear: hold the quarantine as long as possible, as strictly as possible. The intervention on that recommendation is political, in the deepest sense. A global evaluation of the limits of society and the risks involved in moving the needle a little more to one side or the other.
FernĂˇndez's decision to decentralize the cost of the decision to the governors may be politically calculated, but it is consistent with the design of a country that claims to be a federation. He risks triggering a game of chicken, where both sides return the ball to each other, while they perpetuate the quarantine. If federalism is called for when discussing resources, the risks of hard decisions should also be assumed. This is the moment where leaders must emerge.
This is not the time for reassuring catch phrases that "solve" complex decisions. It is a time for action and above all for rigorous planning. To act and measure, to act again with the information obtained. It is a time for courageous people.
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