The Argentinian Populist Race for the Vaccine: An Outcome No One Was Expecting
Argentina’s President, Alberto Fernández, receives the first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine. Attribution: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation).

The start of something new

Twelve months after the Covid-19 pandemic began, everyone knows how to limit the spread of the virus. We know that we should always sanitize our hands, our groceries, our shoes and, if possible, get vaccinated. But what did we know in February last year? No country or government was prepared for something like a pandemic. No matter how many times scientists warned the world about possible future epidemics, no one saw this crisis coming. 

No region or country in the world was safe — sooner or later, Covid-19 was going to hit. South America was not an exception. In Argentina, Alberto Fernández, the current president, had to deal with criticism from the very start of the outbreak in the country. Argentina recorded its first coronavirus case on 3 March 2020, and seeing what Europe was undergoing, with severe lockdowns announced in Italy, Spain and Germany, he decided to act under the motto ‘better sooner than later’. At that time, people seemed to understand the seriousness of the health crisis and were willing to comply with the lockdown which started on 20 March 2020. 

Lives versus economic growth?

So, how did the popular Argentinian rhetoric go from acceptance of the “stay at home” message to “no one can mess with our human rights and freedom”?

As the lockdown was repeatedly extended, people started to abandon the discourse about the importance of saving lives and taking care of each other and fell into the idea that the country had reached a point of no return regarding the rapidly accelerating economic crisis. 

However, South Americans like to think that everything in Europe and the United States is better. Thus, the population of Argentina began to criticize the government and the actions it had taken in the struggle against the pandemic not from an objective point of view, but rather as part of an ‘evil plan of the populist president to destroy the economy’. 

But are people fair when they compare Argentina with countries in Europe? Is everything there truly as good as local media makes it seem? Are populist governments really that bad? You know what they say: “all that glitters is not gold”. 

When one is searching for answers to understand a government’s policy, it is vital to consider the history of the country. Argentina was emerging from four years of right-wing presidential government, led by Mauricio Macri, who left Argentina with a 550% devaluation of the Argentinian peso and a poverty rate of 40.8%.

Two months later, Fernández was in power and we were about to face a major pandemic. There could be no worse scenario in which to start a fight against an unknown virus. 

As a matter of fact, the Argentinian poverty rate increased from 40.8% in December 2019 to approximately 45% a year later, and the unemployment rate rose from 8.9% to 11.7% respectively.

The United Kingdom also suffered an increase in poverty rate from 22% to 23% and in the unemployment rate from 4.5% to 5%. In Italy, one of Europe’s most affected countries, the poverty rate was at 7.7% in 2019 but now, there is an increase in the number of people asking for financial help. And the figures of the European Union are not looking much better, with an increase from 6.6% to 7.5% in the unemployment rate. Across the ocean, in the United States, the unemployment rate raised from 3.6% to 6.3% and the poverty rate from 10.5% to 11.8%. Sometimes, numbers say it better than words.  

It is important to emphasise that the starting point of each country regarding its social and economic indicators at the start of the pandemic is essential to understand to what extent the rates of poverty and unemployment raised due to the impact of the pandemic, but not whether they did. 

Argentina has designed policies to reduce the impact of the pandemic, such as temporary economic assistance for families in need, companies suffering the lockdown and people who lost their jobs. All these policies were referred to as “populist” by the media, in a bid to discredit them. But is it something that just populist governments do? 

This is where comparison starts to play an important role again. England has provided financial support for workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in order to make sure that people still have a monthly income. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, after just one month in power, has already set out plans to provide $1.9 trillion in additional pandemic relief, giving individuals $1400 stimulus checks, and to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Moreover, concerning the social and psychological effects of the pandemic, we are seeing countries with right-wing or centrist governments struggle to find an exit from the nightmare the world is facing. The United Kingdom, for example, is currently experiencing its third national lockdown. Whereas in Argentina even though Argentinians condemned the president for installing ‘the world’s longest lockdown’, the population is now allowed to travel, even internationally. It is possible to go to bars, visit friends, celebrate birthdays, and many people have returned to their jobs – freedoms afforded to few in Europe.

The vaccination campaigns

Argentina has started a landmark vaccination programme and is now the country in South America with the third highest number of doses administrated per 100 people. At present, 1.220.000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine have arrived in the country and are being administered for free.

With an organised vaccination campaign, prioritising essential health workers, followed by over-70s, then by over-60s and people with risk factors or pre-existing conditions, the country sets an example for the rest of the world. 

The president addressed the criticism he has been receiving for months. “Hace 20 días me decían que era un envenenador serial y ahora me piden que por favor consiga más veneno” (“Twenty days ago, people told me I was a serial poisoner, and now they ask me to please get more poison”), said Fernández in a conference on 9 February 2021, responding to those who did not think the vaccination programme would be successful so quickly.

He then, made the witty comment: “Cuando empezó la pandemia nos cambió toda la agenda como al mundo entero, con la diferencia que el mundo no tuvo que encontrarse con esta situación después de Macri” (“When the pandemic started, it changed our agenda as did for the whole world. The difference is that the world did not have to face the context after Macri’s government”).

For comparison, Perú has begun to administer doses of the vaccine on 9 February 2021 and Bolivia is just starting to see the arrival of doses, whilst Uruguay has not even started its vaccination campaign. In this scenario, Argentina lays just behind Chile and Brazil. Left or right, political alignment has proven to be of no importance to explain and understand a government’s policies to fight the coronavirus. Populism does not equal crisis, and extreme-right or centre-right governments do not equal success. There is no right or wrong wing and it all depends on what each country needs in a specific moment in history and its resources to carry out its policies. When talking about the pandemic and its effects on different countries, it is extremely necessary to see the picture as a whole, to compare numbers, social contexts, economic pre-existing issues, etcetera. And, when doing this, Argentina, luckily does not fall far away from its neighbours across the ocean. 

Read more from the Americas section here.