President Alberto Fernández announced a host of new measures to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus on Thursday night, including the suspension of flights from countries heavily hit by the pandemic.
Addressing the nation in a pre-recorded Cadena Nacional state broadcast, Fernández called for unity and told Argentines that each had a responsibility to assist in halting the spread of the infectious disease.
Announcing a host of restrictions, Fernández declared Argentina to be in a state of health emergency for next year and ordered anyone who met a four-point criteria to isolate themselves at home and self-quarantine for 14 days.
The Frente de Todos leader also announced the suspension of all flights to regions most affected by the Covid-19 coronavirus for 30 days, with a view to extension if necessary.
He did not, however, say that schools would be closed. Some provinces, such as Jujuy and Misiones, have decided to suspend classes in their districts immediately.
"Yesterday the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus a pandemic, after the number of people infected globally exceeded 118,000, distributed to date across 110 countries. I want you to know what we are doing to respond to the advance of this virus that is spreading every day throughout the world," he told the nation.
He said the State's role was "essential" and vowed to "prevent, reassure and provide protection to the population," underlining that every Argentine had to play their part.
To date, Argentina has 31 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and recorded one death.
Fernández said he had signed an emergency decree unveiling a host of measures, including the declaration of a “health emergency.”
All flights would be suspended from countries “most affected” by the crisis for 30 days, he revealed, adding that a special budgetary allocation of 1.7 billion pesos (US$26 million) would be committed to improve detection efforts.
"I have issued a decree of necessity and urgency [DNU] that extends the public emergency in health matters,” he declared. “The decree suspends flights from Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Iran for 30 days."
The Peronist leader also clarified that measures would be implemented to facilitate the return of Argentine residents who are overseas, whether in affected countries or not. State airline Aerolíneas Argentinas will be involved in those efforts.
There was no clarification as to whether the block on flights would be immediate. La Nación reported late Thursday that the decree would restrict arrivals from aircraft from abroad, quoting an unnamed Transport Ministry source as saying "international flights that have not yet been cancelled may operate until Monday to bring or bring residents to their country of origin."
"In addition, as of Tuesday, only Aeroíineas Argentinas will be able to operate to repatriate Argentine residents," added the source, who explained that details were still being sorted out.
Fernández's measures mark an important change compared to a few weeks ago when Health Minister Ginés González García expressed doubts that the virus would survive in the summer heat in Argentina.
The decree also grants broad powers to the Health Ministry to acquire the necessary medical equipment and medicine, distribute educational information, and hire doctors with foreign degrees, among other measures to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Crucially, the decree also laid out four classifications under which citizens and visitors must go into 14 days of isolation, which include, for example, travellers arriving from countries considered to be at risk.
"[The decree] also provides mandatory isolation for 14 days in four cases," said Fernández.
"For those with a confirmed diagnosis of Coronavirus; For those people considered suspicious cases – that is, people who have a fever and one or more of the following respiratory symptoms: cough, sore throat or difficulty breathing, and who, also, have been in areas in recent days affected or in contact with confirmed or probable cases of Coronavirus; People who have been in close contact with confirmed cases or suspected cases like the above; People who have entered Argentina in the last 14 days, from affected countries," he said.
Officials briefed earlier on Thursday that prosecutions could follow against those who broke the restrictions.
"We are working on the timely detection and monitoring of potential cases and their contacts," said the president.
The decree, issued late Thursday, said that the categorisation could be "updated by the health authority, depending on the epidemiological evolution."
Among other measures, the government also ordered the suspension of concerts, shows and events with large gatherings and the closure of some public spaces. Galleries and museums will also shut doors across the city, as well as attractions such as the Teatro Colón.
Earlier in the day, officials in Buenos Aires City and Province had announced the suspension of shows and ordered that football be played behind closed doors, without fans.
Fernández also ordered restrictions to prevent price-gouging on items such as alcohol hand-gel and face masks, establishing maximum prices.
A total of 10 new cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in Argentina Thursday, of which seven correspond to people with a history of travel to risk areas.
"Three of the confirmed cases are close contacts of confirmed cases," said a daily briefing from the Health Ministry.
The Peronist leader dedicated a section of his address to the elderly, explaining to the nation that those aged over 65 should avoid crowded places and take extra care, given the pandemic.
"We are Argentina. A united country in which each one must commit to the others and everyone with each individual, starting with the State. A united country in which we understand that what happens to the other affects everyone," he concluded.