Buenos Aires, Argentina – The city of Buenos Aires relaxed a plan on Monday to keep elderly people inside their homes during the coronavirus pandemic, following heavy criticism that the initial restrictions were offensive and discriminatory.
Argentina has been under mandatory lockdown since March 20, with most activities, outside of going to the grocery store, the pharmacy or bank, off limits.
Buenos Aires officials wanted to require those 70 years and older to get permission to leave their homes, but following a backlash from the community, government sources say obtaining a permit is no longer mandatory.
The government now advises elderly residents to call a toll-free number to say that they need to go out, during which the main goal will be to convince them to remain indoors by offering to have the task completed by a volunteer.
The city’s resolution states that the city will record “notice” if the person decides to proceed with the outing, and that the notice lasts for 48 hours. But sources told Al Jazeera there will be no penalties for individuals who leave home without giving “notice”.
City officials say the plan is designed to protect the group most at risk of dying from the novel coronavirus.
“I don’t pick who the pandemic attacks,” Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, mayor of the city of Buenos Aires, said at a Monday morning news conference. “All of the decisions have a single criteria, which is to look after the lives of the residents of this city.”
While the mandatory lockdown remains, the national government has been gradually lifting restrictions for certain tasks, leading to a noticeable increase in movement on the streets of Buenos Aires.
“If you consider that you have to go out, give us the opportunity to speak with you,” Fernan Quiros, the city’s health minister, pleaded with older people. “If you do not like what we are offering you, and if you think that it is not valid, you have all the freedom to carry out the activity that you want,” he said at the news conference.
Larreta said the measure is guided by statistics: 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths worldwide have been people over the age of 70. In Argentina, with more than 2,900 cases and 136 deaths, the average age of the deceased is 71.
The original proposal, which had the backing of President Alberto Fernandez, generated fierce controversy in the capital city of Argentina, with a population of 3 million, including around 400,000 people over the age of 70. Officials had originally considered fining violators, or requiring community service, but reversed course amid the public outcry.
Critics called it unconstitutional, discriminatory and a form of imprisonment. And even after the backpedalling, many said it was confusing and they had a hard time getting through to the line.
“We think it’s an inadequate and unacceptable measure because it generates a sense of handicap that relates to age,” Eugenio Semino, the ombudsman for seniors in Argentina, told Al Jazeera of the original plan.
“Older people are not suicidal,” and simply need the same explanations as other people about how to protect themselves. “Our great fear is not, as is sometimes assumed, the mystery of death, but rather it’s fear of the loss of autonomy. The loss of freedom,” he added.
It is a debate that has also been playing out in Europe. In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that elderly people will have to remain in quarantine longer than the rest of the population stoked such a backlash that his government backtracked, saying it will not discriminate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also come out against isolating elderly people in order to return to normalcy, calling it “ethically unacceptable”.
In Argentina, prominent writers, journalists and thinkers had voiced their strong opposition. Among them is Argentine intellectual and art historian Jose Emilio Burucua, who expressed his outrage last week in an email to friends, in which he suggested people start wearing a yellow Star of David, with +70 written inside. The 76-year-old included a photo of himself, wearing the star. His comparison to the Nazi treatment of Jews drew condemnation from the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, which spoke out against the banalisation of great suffering. Burucua has since admitted he may have gone too far, but said there is nothing banal about discrimination and a loss of constitutional liberties.
“We know our fragility, but prohibitions won’t help you take care of us,” Graciela Fernandez Meijide, an Argentine human rights activist, wrote in a column in Clarin newspaper last week.
Maria Rosa Fernandez agreed the permit proposal was absurd.
“The responsibility of my life is mine,” said the 87-year-old, leaning up against the windowsill of one of her favourite coffee shops in the neighbourhood of Chacarita on Saturday. She lamented its closure, and the coffees she has been missing. The fresh air keeps her sane.
And while she agrees that the government should look after the elderly, there are limits.
“You can’t infringe on someone’s liberty. If I have to stay at home all day, I will die,” she said.