Argentina Eyes Herd Immunity — And Healthcare Reform
The scale and spread of the coronavirus pandemic may make so-called 'herd immunity' virtually inevitable, but it can also prompt Argentina to integrate its scattered healthcare services into a single, national service.
BUENOS AIRES — Since the pandemic began, the official policy of all healthcare bodies run by the Argentine Health Ministry has basically been to reinforce the system with more beds in hospital intensive care units, increase the number of healthcare professionals and organize an effective quarantine in and around the capital, which was considered the most "at-risk" region.
Of course, an increase in ICU beds and training medics to undertake new treatments — both in the private and public sectors — are significant measures. Still, these are hardly the only valid responses the state can and should implement.
Herd immunity does not mean there will be no infections.
The healthcare system, with a wide fragmentation of resources and concentration in certain parts of the country, was already shortsighted before the pandemic. Now, we are in for the long haul. Today, the very low level of testing and very high proportion of positives among those tested illustrate not just the insufficiency of testing, but also the absence of any decent tracking and prevention policy.
With around one million Argentines infected, the reality indicates that the country is effectively seeking herd immunity, or precisely the opposite of what the government is saying to justify lengthy confinements.
That is akin to betting everything on this card, in a system that is unprepared to face down an enormous economic crisis and a social security sector that has been losing countless contributors who must now rely on the state. This will worsen as we enter the summer (in the southern hemisphere), when several epidemics will join forces, namely coronavirus, dengue fever and Zika in the northern and central parts of the country. These will need particular attention in the summer, as their symptoms may be confused with those of COVID-19.
The pandemic's economic effects will greatly impact the healthcare system — Photo: Roberto Almeida Aveledo/ZUMA
A second wave of infections is hard to see in Argentina, as the current rate of contagion and deaths makes it difficult for infections to rise much beyond our present rates, with herd immunity.
Achieving herd immunity does not mean there will be no infections, but that these will be fewer, and with a far lower death rate. If we add to this a vaccine that may arrive toward the middle of the next year, the problem may even be curbed.
The pandemic's economic effects will nevertheless greatly impact the healthcare system. Supplies are imported. The loss of formal jobs will also hurt the social security and private insurance sectors. Contributions have fallen short of the cost of services and there are no signs of an improvement to this situation in the short term.
This creates an urgent need to integrate the national system of healthcare services, to equitably distribute the country's healthcare resources and make them accessible to an impoverished population. The country must also be prepared for future healthcare threats by creating a National Health Agency that benefits all. This would mean that the high price we are paying for herd immunity in money and lives will not have been in vain.
*Moyano is a healthcare consultant in Buenos Aires.