But those hard weeks have turned into seven months, and much of Argentina’s lockdown, believed to be the world’s longest, is still dragging on.
So much sacrifice, Bonicalzi sometimes thinks, and for what? The South American country has become one of the coronavirus’s most explosive breeding grounds. In early August, fewer than 200,000 Argentines had contracted the virus. That number has since surged to 1.1 million — 1 out of every 44 people — and 28,000 are dead.
“A failure,” Bonicalzi said. “Expectations have had little in common with reality.”
Argentines are now grappling with a collective sense of exhaustion and demoralization, even disbelief. They took the disease seriously from the beginning, listened to the experts, trusted their leaders. They didn’t dismiss the disease as a little cold, as many did in Brazil. They didn’t give in to toxic polarization, at least initially, as in the United States. They didn’t have India’s high rates of inequality and poverty.
Yet Argentina now finds itself among all those countries, in the global top five for coronavirus cases.
“The majority of people have a feeling of failure, that the health measures failed,” said Roberto Debbag, vice president of the Latin American Society of Pediatric Epidemiology. “This has increased dramatically in the last three months.”
The precise mix of factors that have led Argentina’s numbers to spike is unclear. It appears the country’s efforts to control the virus were undone by a familiar cast of foes — poverty, inequality, health-care shortcomings, testing failures — but also, some analysts believe, by the severity of the lockdown itself. When the measures were eased ever so slightly, they say, Argentines leaped at the chance for social interaction.
Thousands gathered in Buenos Aires this month to protest the lockdown, the government and a judicial overhaul measure. More are venturing out of their homes in defiance of restrictions. In the seaside resort town of Mar del Plata, where cases and hospitalizations have been rising sharply, restaurant owners have rebelled. They’ve allowed people to eat indoors, when it was only recently that they were allowed to resume outdoor dining.
“At first, it was only supposed to be 15 days, which for us was a huge sacrifice, but considering the extent of the problem, we followed it,” said Avedis Haig Sahakian, who owns several Mar del Plata restaurants. Now, he said, “even those who are not supposed to be open are open anyway.”
Authorities in recent months have begun allowing limited activity in cities and provinces with fewer infections. But Argentines nationwide are still required to wear masks in public, gatherings of more than 10 people are banned everywhere, and much of the country remains effectively locked down. More Argentines are flouting the restrictions.
The two forces — lockdown fatigue and an explosion of coronavirus cases — are colliding at a time when intensive care units are nearly full, according to the Argentine Society of Intensive Care Medicine. But people can’t seem to will themselves back into lockdown.
Verónica Peña, a 32-year-old Venezuelan immigrant in Buenos Aires, followed the restrictions strictly until last month but has now broken out. “We are not under normal circumstances,” she said. “But right now, people are so sick of it that we are all saying, ‘You know what? Screw it.’ ”
Luis Alberto Cámera, an epidemiologist who has advised the government on its coronavirus response, is unsure how society may be reopened safely. Every time a rule is relaxed, people who have been stricken with cabin fever rush back to their old ways, driving cases higher, prolonging the crisis — and creating a need for more restrictions.
“The reopening policies haven’t taken into account that people could again behave as they did back in 2019,” he said. “We have been unable to convey the idea of being open while also taking constant care.”
When President Alberto Fernández announced a national lockdown in March, there were still fewer than a dozen cases in Argentina. It was an earlier and more decisive action than was taken by just about any other world leader. The borders closed, shops shuttered and a country of 45 million people came to a halt. As neighboring Brazil was devastated by a disease it did little to stop, Argentines supported Fernández’s aggressive approach almost unanimously.
“It’s a long way, but it is a war against an invisible army that attacks us in places where sometimes we do not expect,” Fernández declared in March.
But as people grew to understand how long a way it would turn out to be, Fernández’s approval rating dropped from the high 80s to 37 percent. The government has begun to relax some rules — commercial flights were allowed to resume this month — but late last week, Fernández announced yet another lockdown extension.
It was his eighth.
“The government has committed significant errors in its calculus,” said political analyst Rosendo Fraga, director of the New Majority Institute in Buenos Aires. “When the quarantine was established on March 20, it announced the peak of the pandemic would be at the end of April. From then on, it was always just a few more weeks until the end of the pandemic.”
The extraordinary length of the lockdown — coupled now with its frustrating futility — has grown into what scientists here are treating as a mass sociological experiment on the limits of social isolation. Researchers with the University of Buenos Aires interviewed more than 3,600 people in September and found many were struggling.
Nearly half reported feeling great anxiety. More than a third said they had developed depression. Alcohol and drug use was surging. A plurality said the government had become too preoccupied with health concerns, to the exclusion of all others, and needed to find a more balanced approach. Most were more worried about what the pandemic would do to their wallet than to their health.
A separate survey found many of the effects were more pronounced among children. Seven in 10 reported symptoms of depression and loneliness.
“I have a son who’s 3½ ,” Bonicalzi said. “Almost his entire conscious life has been spent in quarantine, isolated. When we took him back out, he got very, very nervous, clinging to us, beginning to scream when he came into contact with other people, especially with small children.”
They took him to a psychologist, who said the boy had developed a social phobia. He has improved, but Bonicalzi still worries.
“There’s no precedent for how isolation this significant will impact the psychology of children his age,” he said. “The truth is we didn’t know when this was going to end.”
The anxiety and disillusionment has been most acute, researchers have found, among the poor. Containment measures have cratered the economy, pushing people such as Marian Gómez, 27, an informal maintenance worker on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, further to the fringes. Transport to the city center has been suspended for everyone but essential workers, leaving her no way to pick up jobs there. She hasn’t been able to see her friends or family; she is relying for support solely on her wife, who works from home.
Now she spends nights sleepless and days waiting — waiting for her wife to get done with work, waiting for things to get back to normal.
“Personally, this pandemic has taken many things from me,” she said. “Every day is monotonous, pretty much the same.
“It’s Groundhog Day.”