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Argentina reports zero Covid deaths for first time since start of pandemic

Covid-19 continues to recede across South America as some countries end mask mandates — although experts advise caution.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Argentina recorded zero deaths related to Covid-19 on Apr. 17 for the first time in two years as cases recede across South America.

In response to the data, which also reported 428 new cases in the 24 hours before, the health ministry decided to stop reporting daily Covid-19 cases and deaths and begin to report them weekly. Argentina is the largest country in South America to report zero deaths since the pandemic began in February 2020.

Days before the figures were announced, health minister Carla Vizzotti said a fourth booster program will be rolled out for at-risk groups.

Argentina joined Uruguay in welcoming zero daily Covid-19 deaths as data across South America continue to show single daily digits, marking the lowest regional levels since the beginning of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization’s regional body warned Latin American countries should not think the pandemic is over, despite some countries deciding to end their 2-year-long states of emergency. 

Uruguay put an end to its health emergency this month, eliminating its face mask mandate completely. In recent days, the governments of Paraguay and Brazil have announced the end of their states of emergency. 

Paraguay has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region at 48%, while Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro has politicized the use of mask-wearing by speaking out against it and refusing to wear a mask even when required by law.

“This is not the time to lower our guard,” said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies at the Pan American Health Organization, even as Caribbean countries including Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica begin to ease travel restrictions.

In Argentina, mask-wearing remains mandatory on public transport and closed spaces, with officials wary of future strains generating new waves of cases. “We are in a transition period toward a situation of a new common virus, with the possibility of a wave of cases as the cold sets in,” said Fernán Quirós, the health minister for the city of Buenos Aires.

In May 2020, when the World Health Organization declared Latin America the epicenter of the pandemic, the residents of the Argentine capital were enduring a strict lockdown that would eventually stretch for 234 days. This made it the longest continuous lockdown in the world — despite recent studies questioning the effectiveness of the lockdown length when it came to long-term contagion of the virus. 

In November 2020, the same month the national lockdown eased, President Alberto Fernández announced the government had agreed to buy 10 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, with the first batch of 300,000 doses arriving in Argentina from Moscow a month later.

Argentina was one of the first countries to approve and administer the Sputnik vaccine, before later adding Sinopharm, Sinovac, Covishield, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer. But Sputnik pushed much of the early vaccination drive, eventually leading to today’s full vaccination rate of 81.9% — the fourth highest in Latin America behind Chile (91.2%), Cuba (87.7%) and Uruguay (82.3%).

During his trip to Moscow this past February, Fernández thanked Russia for its help in providing vaccines. Speaking alongside Putin, three weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Fernández highlighted the friendship between both countries and the desire for Argentina to become “the gateway into Latin America, so that Russia can enter Latin America in a more decisive way.”

Fernández ended his speech with a critique of the U.S. and the hope of strengthening ties with Russia. “I am determined that Argentina has to stop having such a great dependence on the [International Monetary] Fund and the United States,” the president said. “It has to make its way elsewhere and that is where it seems to me that Russia has a very important place.”

After Russian troops began their invasion of Ukraine, the Argentine government urged for a ceasefire while stopping short of calling the military action an "invasion." The president said he regretted the military escalation while the foreign minister called for "all parties involved to return to the dialogue table.” The vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, an influential political figure and former president (2007-2015) made no public political statement.

The pandemic continues to recede from the foreground of daily life in Argentina — from TV screens to the city streets. With sustained low cases reported and daily reports giving way to weekly reports, the health defenses implemented by the government have mostly been removed. But experts warn against complacency.

“The pandemic has not ended,” Quirós, Buenos Aires' health minister, said on CNN. “What ended, quite clearly, is the evolution of three waves."

Florencia Cahn, president of the Argentine Society of Vaccinology and Epidemiology, underlines this point while emphasizing the role of strong vaccine programs. “Unfortunately, the pandemic has not ended, but it is a different pandemic from the one we began to live with during the beginning of 2020,” Cahn told the national newspaper Perfil. “It is a different pandemic because the virus is different, the variants circulating are different and also because in Argentina we are vaccinated.”

As of Apr. 22, Argentina has recorded 9 million cases of Covid-19 (the 13th highest in the world) and 128,000 deaths (the 14th highest).

Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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