Argentina remains one of the South American nations that managed to avoid a massive spread of COVID-19, with Johns Hopkins University data from 7 May revealing 5,208 confirmed coronavirus cases and 273 deaths.
According to Igor Baratoff, the co-founder of a small food processing firm in the country’s western Mendoza province, the government’s decision to impose a strict quarantine on 20 March this year was one of the factors that helped prevent the disease from spreading.
Sputnik: Only 85 people have been tested positive for COVID-19 in your province so far and only 10 have died from coronavirus-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic. Other provinces have had even less than that – just two or four cases and zero deaths. What is happening in your community right now?
Igor Baratoff: My province is one of the less-affected provinces. We don’t have a large number of cases, so we’re trying to get back to normal work. Of course, schools are closed, I think schools and universities will re-open in September, and the government doesn’t want to open the schools. The production area, like us, we continue working normally because now it’s time to produce wine and jams. We have six people working in the factory.
Two weeks ago we had to do a rotation of employees, but we never stopped working. Some of my staff members were not allowed to work because of their age, so they had to stay at home for a week or two because of the risks. But being understaffed was the only problem for my company at that time. We are producing food, so the authorities did not prohibit us and other food companies from functioning. In little towns in Mendoza province the government has allowed people to go back to normal work. Small stores are open, and restrictions have been lifted.
Argentina has been on a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown (one of the strictest in Latin America) since 20 March. At the end of April, restrictive measures were extended until 10 May. They affect metropolitan areas with populations of 500,000 or more.
Sputnik: Before the pandemic your company, which processes, packages, and sells local fruit and vegetable products, was largely export-oriented. How did the lockdown affect your exports?
Igor Baratoff: The borders are closed, but for other companies exports are going as usual. Of course, there are fewer orders and less quantity, but if I have to export, I can do it. The government closed the borders for tourists and for people who wanted to go outside the country. But in my company, the employees are working normally, complying with the sanitary protocols that are required of us. Right now we are making jams from apples and pears. We don’t export anything because my clients in the US and Brazil asked us to wait until they see what’s happening. It might take some time, maybe until after the winter. Nevertheless, we have growth in domestic sales, in other provinces of Argentina.
Sputnik: What are the numbers when it comes to your current domestic sales?
Igor Baratoff: It’s crazy: compared to the pre-pandemic period, the sales inside the country grew by 200% and in April it was 300%. But we think that the selling trend will change in May – there will be less than that, and in June it will be back to usual numbers. We are selling more because people are at home, they cook and eat more – having breakfast, lunch and dinner at home, they drink more wine because they don’t have to drive anywhere, and stay inside – and that was the reason for the growth in sales.
Sputnik: Your province is known for being the home of Malbec wines and it’s a popular destination for visitors from outside the country. What has been the impact of the pandemic on tourism?
Igor Baratoff: Usually we have tourists from all over the world because of the wine, because of the mountains – the Aconcagua. Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Iguaçu Falls in Misiones Province or Patagonia are now closed for tourists and hotels are closing, restaurants are not working and nor are the winery tours. The airport in our province is closed. We can’t get out of the province, and nobody can enter. These industries have serious problems and the government is trying to help the tourism industry.
Sputnik: There are various approaches all over the world when it comes to government COVID-19 aid – from giving checks to companies and private individuals, to cutting taxes. What did your government do?
Igor Baratoff: The government started helping by providing loans and tax relief because everything is paralysed. Right now, our small province is starting to open up, but big cities – Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Rosario – the government doesn’t want to open them because of the coronavirus, and they are continuing the restrictions: people have to stay home and only food stores and pharmacies are allowed to function. One of the problems for the government in big cities is transportation – trains, buses, which bring people to work.
They don’t want to resume all that. But here in Mendoza or in other provinces, such as Patagonia, Jujuy, or San Juan, where cities are small and distances are big, it became possible for provincial governments to resume activities. They make such decisions also because we don’t have many cases [of the coronavirus]. In northern provinces there haven’t been any deaths, so all they do is close the provincial border and they let people work as usual.
The government package of COVID-19 tax relief measures for companies in Argentina includes a 95% reduction in employer social security contributions, a 59% reduction in bank credit tax, and a 17% reduction in bank debt tax.
Sputnik: There is a significant difference between Argentina and countries like Brazil, Chile, and Peru, which were hit very hard by the pandemic. While you have over 5,000 cases nationwide, Chile has more than 23,000 and Peru has more than 54,000 coronavirus cases. Does this have anything to do with the type of lockdown in each of them, or with the timing?
Igor Baratoff: That was what made the difference. When the government in Argentina heard what happened in Spain and Italy – the government here said “Ok, close the country”. They did same thing as 10 years ago, during the swine flu outbreak. The government closed the country, we started the quarantine in March, and, as scientists say – it was a good decision. Other countries, such as Brazil and Chile – they don’t do it. Right now in Brazil they have many cases and [President Jair] Bolsonaro said that he didn’t want to close the country and didn’t want the economic situation to become worse. So, now there is this difference in death toll, which is much smaller in Argentina than in Brazil. So I think that closing down the border early was a good decision by our government.
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