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What's it like to be in Argentina during Coronavirus

A city once lit up by restaurants, music, and endless dancing

View from my balcony — Palermo, Buenos Aires

Today marks my one month in Buenos Aires, a city famous for its lively culture and ubiquitous music. But lately, it’s become a ghost town. Argentina was the first country in Latin America to shut down its economy in response to the coronavirus disease. In a letter to the Argentinian people, President Alberto Fernández mentioned it to be “an exceptional decision for exceptional times.” Forty-five million residents were ordered to stay home, with slight flexibility for those shopping for essential supplies or seeking medical attention.

I arrived in Buenos Aires the day before the government imposed a quarantine for foreigners and a few days before they issued a country-wide lockdown. Before the quarantine, lines for restaurants wrapped around the corner, servers bustled in and out, carrying bottles of Malbec wine and plates of flank steak with chimichurri sauce. The smell of fresh garlic and lightly fried pastries permeated the summer air, luring in anyone who came within its vicinity. Friends greeted each other with pecks on the cheek before entering the local bar. Bright lights hung like Christmas decorations through the neighborhood, lighting up the cobblestone streets where children ran in circles whilst playing their own version of tag.

This world has seemingly vanished.

My quaint, urban balcony overlooks a windy strip of residential buildings at the heart of Palermo, a trendy neighborhood in Buenos Aires. On the balcony a few floors down to my left, I catch a young girl no older than seven pushing her stroller back and forth in the tiny, confined space as if she’s rocking a baby to sleep. On the rooftop a couple blocks down, I glimpse a man lightly jogging before he turns the corner and disappears. Across from his roof is a woman gripping the edge of the glass rail, gazing longingly into the distance. It’s an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon. Police cars patrol the vacant streets, ready to pounce at any behavior that appears abnormal.

For the first 14 days, I was under the close watch of the building security guard; hence, my only glimpse of the outside world was via my balcony. Once, the city police banged on my door at 2 a.m. requesting my passport and signature on a stack of Spanish papers which I could not understand. I assumed it must be something related to not leaving during the quarantine. Apparently, they were going door to door to track down all foreigners in the city.

After two weeks of utter solitude and limited food varieties, I was finally permitted to personally shop for groceries rather than ordering from Rappi or PedidosYa, the local food delivery apps. I donned my mask and gloves, excited to see my neighborhood and take back a large loaf of freshly baked bread.

But the outside world was no different than the view from my balcony. Outdoor dining was replaced by shuttered doors; normally vibrant streets were instead dark, muted, and lifeless. I had imagined my days hidden in hip coffee shops writing delightful screenplays and my evenings filled with folklore music, live tango shows, and glass after glass of the famed Malbecs. I dreamt of weekends on a ferry towards Uruguay, in a winery in Mendoza, and on a bus towards the Andes to Santiago. Instead, I would spend my days discovering which grocery stores offered the best selection of chocolate, a dietary staple for me during these anxious times.

Aside from grocery stores like Disco, Jumbo, and a few local Chinos, I haven’t been able to see anything of Palermo, let alone the broader country. International and domestic travel have become vastly limited. Several times a week, I would receive an email from the U.S. Embassy informing me of limited flights home: “If you need to leave Argentina, you should strongly consider booking this flight, otherwise you should be prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” I refuse to admit to myself that I may leave Argentina without ever having indulged in its culture.

So I remain. The days pass by one by one, and after the third week, they start to blur together. I learned a few lines of Spanish so I can order a coffee-to-go from an elderly man at a local cafe a few streets down. He had blocked his doorway with a wooden table, which was half occupied with packs of sugar, stirring sticks, and coffee lids. “So weird,” he once said to me, with a shaky smile. I could see the agony in his eyes. His business no doubt suffered from the shut down, and he had very few revenue options aside from offering delivery services. Similar to all the other restaurant owners on the street, he wrote out the lunch menu on a large outdoor chalkboard and made delivery flyers readily available for each passerby.

Yesterday, I walked to the local Chinatown to pick up condiments. I’d been craving chili oil and fresh fish, which were nowhere to be found in the local grocery stores. To avoid attracting attention to my Asian features, I put on a beret along with my mask and gloves. I had been reading about racism towards Chinese people running rampant across the world and thought it was well worth taking precautions, especially since I have barely seen any Chinese residents in Buenos Aires.

On my route, I counted only a handful of people outside — it was hard to imagine that I was strolling through one of the largest cities in Latin America. Perhaps one-third of them, usually women or the elderly, wore masks and gloves. They all made sure to maintain a distance of two meters or more. Fruit vendors lounge outside their stand, waiting for a shopper to come by. I caught sight of a few elderly women conversing on separate balconies. It made me wonder whether they did that during normal times. No one dared greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, which was once the norm in this culture. Cars were a rare sight; instead, the streets lined with bikers and motorcyclists delivering supplies, groceries, and food. I passed a metro station, its gates completely shut. A few buses still operated, but most of the ones that drove by were entirely empty.

The city was enclosed in an apocalyptic aura, as if we were all starring in a Black Mirror episode.

I retreat to my balcony, the only place where I can people-watch without feeling the police breathing down my neck. The man has stopped jogging and started a series of squats. I shift my gaze downwards. A lady on the 8th floor of a parallel building has just finished her sunbathe; next door, another woman hangs up her freshly laundered towels to dry. Time passes idly. I hear rave music coming from the right side — a one person party? More people step out on their balconies.

It’s now 9pm. Right on the dot, the silent neighborhood explodes into cheers and applauses thanking the country’s medical staff, who have been working tirelessly day and night. I stand up and join them. This daily expression of gratitude is the only time I feel the city come alive.

As an outsider, I cannot possibly fathom how difficult this lockdown has been on the country and its people, especially since Argentina was already deep in a recession pre-pandemic, but I highly respect President Fernández for shutting down the economy long before other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico, and even before some states in U.S. did. It takes a great deal of resolve, courage, and responsibility to impose such harsh measures during a time of economic distress, a deed neighboring countries initially refused to act on in fear of complete economic collapse. He understood the harrowing risks of uncontrolled infection growth in a vulnerable region where the healthcare system, ventilator supply, and sanitary conditions are in question.

Argentina has set an example for not just the rest of Latin America, but also the U.S., by trusting in science, learning from Italy’s missteps, and acting early. As of April 12, 2020, the World Health Organization reported ~2K cases of coronavirus in Argentina, which is half of Mexico’s ~4K and significantly lower than its neighbor, Brazil, at ~20K. 

The lockdown comes at the burden of the population, but in Buenos Aires at least, its citizens are trying, albeit begrudgingly, to abide by the isolation requirements, even if it means temporarily setting aside their cultural norms.

Strange and unprecedented times, indeed.


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