Argentina’s grain sector braces for its first coronavirus case

Argentina is waiting for the first COVID-19 case to be confirmed among the thousands of port labourers and grains handlers who work in the country’s key agricultural export sector.
calendar icon 16 April 2020
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According to Reuters, local industry officials are braced for the first confirmed coronavirus case among port workers.

Argentina is the world’s number three supplier of corn and raw soybeans and is the top exporter of soymeal livestock feed used in cattle globally.

Offficial data indicates that the country has had 2,277 confirmed COVID-19 cases to date, 101 of which have been fatal.

As the pandemic spreads and export companies enact precautions to keep workers safe, industry officials said it was inevitable that someone within the grains complex would get the virus – likely causing concern among fellow workers and importers of Argentine farm goods around the world.

"Right now is the critical point. We are working with different prevention protocols, supervised by infectious disease experts giving us recommendations," said Gustavo Idigoras, head of Argentina's CIARA-CEC export companies chamber.

"So far we have no confirmed cases. But we are preparing."

The pandemic slowed transport of recently harvested soy and corn to port last month. But those earlier logistics bottlenecks have been largely cleared. Industry leaders say they are ready for the shock expected to accompany the first internal case.

"The export chain is prepared," said Luis Zubizarreta, head of Argentina's CPPC private ports chamber.

Cargo ships are being checked by Coast Guard health inspectors, while employees up and down the chain are required to wear protective gear, Zubizarreta said.

Export sector workers are constantly having their temperature taken. Anyone hotter than 37.5 degrees Celsius, or 99.50 degrees in Fahrenheit, is not allowed in port facilities.

Stevedores and white collar port workers are required to stay 1.5 meters away from each other at all times and medical teams have been posted at all grains transfer points.

The government, under pressure to keep the economy running amid a fast-deepening recession and upcoming sovereign bond restructuring, has exempted people in export-related jobs from the lockdown, which is currently set to end on 27 April.

Grains quality inspectors represented by labour union URGARA tried to go on strike over health concerns last month but were ordered by the government to stay on the job.

URGARA says all Argentines should be staying home to protect their health. "Given the current situation, export activity is not essential," URGARA boss Pablo Palacio told Reuters.

"We know that the economic issue is important, but the need to preserve the health of the population is overriding," Palacio said, noting that grains inspectors work in highly travelled choke points like borders and ports from where the virus could easily be transmitted to the world.

He did not renew URGARA's call for a strike, but neither did he rule out industrial action.

"If a case occurs, we would look to see why and how it happened, take all corresponding precautions and, obviously, we would look to see who was responsible," Palacio said.

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