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World

Argentina's Early Efforts To Fight The Pandemic Show Positive Results

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

COVID-19 is causing mayhem across South America, except in Argentina. There's been little testing, but there is widespread agreement the government there has kept numbers down. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

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PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It seems like light-years since this vast crowd gathered in Buenos Aires celebrating the election of a new president called Alberto Fernandez.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

REEVES: This crowd believes the left-leaning Fernandez will save their country from recession. Then just a few months later, the coronavirus arrived.

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PRESIDENT ALBERTO FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Fernandez shut down his country on March the 20 with a quarantine enforced by fines and arrests.

OMAR SUED: He was taking this decision because the economy can be improved in the future, but the lives of the people cannot be recovered.

REEVES: Dr. Omar Sued sits on a panel of experts giving Fernandez pandemic advice. Sued remembers terrifying projections of what might happen if the government did nothing.

SUED: These first estimates say that we could have 250,000 deaths.

REEVES: Everyone knew Argentina's health system couldn't cope, says Sued, so Argentina locked down early after just 100 confirmed cases.

SUED: Looking today, it was a good decision, and we are very happy to be one of the countries with a lower number of dead people.

REEVES: Quarantines come with a price. Ariel Viano has an aluminum fittings business with 10 employees. His company is now...

ARIEL VIANO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Collapsing. "I can't pay wages and taxes. I can't pay utility bills," says Viano.

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REEVES: Others are getting by with some clever footwork. Maria Plazaola is famed in the dance halls of Buenos Aires...

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REEVES: ...As a professional tango dancer. She runs her own dance school. Lockdown was hard at first, says Plazaola, but got better after she started teaching tango online...

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MARIA PLAZAOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...To people all over the world.

PLAZAOLA: It keeps me going, which is very important.

REEVES: Plazaola thinks Alberto Fernandez is handling the coronavirus crisis well.

PLAZAOLA: I'm so happy about having him now as a president because I really appreciate what he's doing. It makes me feel safe.

REEVES: Polls show Argentines overwhelmingly agree. Fernandez's popularity soared, yet his position is fragile. He's begun easing restrictions despite concerns the virus will spread. Some economists predict Argentina's GDP will drop as much as 8% this year. Argentina faces default this month if it can't reach a deal with foreign creditors. Yet Argentines are used to boom and bust. We're survivors, says Maria Plazaola, the tango dancer.

PLAZAOLA: I have trust, you know? I have hope.

REEVES: Even though to get out of trouble, Argentina will need a lot more clever footwork.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.