The sting of an absent state

The Milei administration’s woeful response to a deadly dengue outbreak is emblematic of their ‘every man for himself’ attitude — and it’s a danger to public health

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 13, 2024. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

Buenos Aires Herald editorial

This week, the Buenos Aires City government’s health minister posted photos of himself at a community center in a poor neighborhood, large vats and pans laid out before him. For this, he told his audience, they would need fresh thyme, lemon, vinegar, cloves, and a series of other plants. 

He wasn’t swapping chimichurri recipes. It was, allegedly, a homemade mosquito repellent — the city government’s response to a dengue outbreak that has sickened over 134,000 people and killed over 100 in Argentina.

Despite being eradicated in the mid-20th century, the mosquito-borne disease made a comeback in Argentina in 1997 and has plagued warmer months ever since. Today it’s a major public health issue both in the country and across the Americas

This year’s outbreak is the worst recorded in national history, but the national government can’t boast a better response than Buenos Aires City. The CoFeSa federal health ministers’ board did not meet to discuss the issue until this week. A dengue vaccine exists, but Presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni has already stated that the government is not currently planning to add it to the list of mandatory vaccines, which would make the jab free for rich and poor alike. However, the government does have the budget to purchase 24 new fighter jets in an operation with Denmark the U.S. has signed off on. 

Argentines would usually see awareness campaigns this time of year plastered across public transport and featured across social media with tips on preventing mosquito reproduction and how to spot signs of dengue. But just three months into his presidency, Argentina is learning that libertarianism, the ideology of the absent state, is woefully inadequate to respond to the needs of a public health emergency. 

It comes as no surprise that Milei should be caught on the back foot. The president has described the climate crisis as a “communist hoax” — but the rise in dengue cases is precisely linked to this phenomenon. For example, the increase in heatwaves alters regular rain and temperature patterns, which in turn help the mosquito that carries dengue to reproduce.  

The president has spent this year slashing funding for the provinces. When they complain, he has claimed that they are too busy spending money organizing music festivals to feed their own hungry. But, even if it were true that the country’s devastating socioeconomic situation was the fault of poor spending and not, in large part, the disastrous austerity he himself is implementing, we would be facing a situation of the pot calling the kettle black. 

The government’s response to the dengue outbreak demonstrates that everyone is equally free to protect themselves against the disease but only those with a cool AR$140,000 (US$166 at the official rate, 133 at the MEP rate) for the two shots required to get immunity are seemingly safe. And this is without considering the additional tens of thousands of pesos people have to shell out for bug repellent, which has become not only more expensive but increasingly scarce due to the outbreak. 

Those who can’t afford it, it seems, must take their chances with the mosquitos.


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