How Argentina’s Strict Covid-19 Lockdown Saved Lives

The sky was still dark when Gabriel pulled up and we piled our bags—heavy with uneaten camping meals—into the trunk of his dusty sedan. As he nosed the car off the dirt road and onto the paved streets of El Calafate, my partner J. and I scanned for signs of the police cars that had been patrolling them for the past 36 hours, orders to stay inside streaming from their loudspeakers. Gabriel knew where we were going. There was only one place in Argentina two people carrying American passports could be going.
“¿Tienen un vuelto?” he asked. Yes, we had a flight. Whether or not we’d be able to get on it though, that was the question. I glanced at my phone, trying to memorize the phrases I had typed into Google Translate and screenshotted the night before. J. turned on his data so we could call the emergency number the embassy in Buenos Aires had given us, just in case.person lathering hands with soap and water

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Gabriel asked us if we’d heard about the French tourist in the hospital who’d tested positive for the virus—the reason the mayor of El Calafate had declared a total lockdown of the town two days ago. Yes, we’d heard. We’d also heard about the province-wide police search for 15 European travelers who’d evaded a quarantine for newly-entered foreigners by hiding out in a bus station bathroom. Like them, I was now breaking a week-old public health order, the penalty for which was a fine or up to two years in an Argentinian prison.This is what had been on my mind as we huddled inside hotel rooms and Airbnb apartments, making and unmaking plans, glued to Spanish-language news sites trying to divine what actions South American authorities would take next to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus to their countries. And then, when we failed to predict what would happen next, watching with rising panic as the exits closed around us one by one. This was our last shot; a flight from the single-gated airport in El Calafate to Bariloche then on to Buenos Aires, Panama City, and Miami. If we made it that far, we’d still have to book the final leg to our home in Minneapolis. But first, we had to get to Buenos Aires today. At midnight, all long-distance buses, trains, and domestic flights would stop running.
Through the taxi’s windshield, we could see the outline of the police checkpoint against the first heathered pink film of dawn. J. reached over and squeezed my hand. I felt my heart beat against the outline of my passport in my jacket’s chest pocket. Gabriel slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the window. A female officer with a low tight bun beneath her fatigue-green cap approached and peered inside. “¿Al aeropuerto?”

“Sí, sí,” we replied. She looked us over for a long 10 seconds. And then, stepping into the road to remove the traffic cones that blocked our path, she waved us on.

Like tens of thousands of other Americans who found themselves abroad in mid-March, we were scrambling to get home as countries around the world sealed their borders against the novel coronavirus that had emerged in China in late 2019. But unlike most of them, I really should have known better.Since mid-January, I’d been covering the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2 , and the deadly disease it causes, Covid-19. For weeks, I’d been reading every report coming out of Wuhan, dialing into daily briefings with the World Health Organization, and talking to virologists, epidemiologists, and anyone who could tell me where this thing was going. Even when it first became clear that person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 was possible, experts were optimistic it couldn’t go global.