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Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 13:11 UK

Swine flu infects Argentine economy

By Veronica Smink
BBC Mundo, Buenos Aires

Theatres in Argentina are closed
Theatre ticket sales have dropped by 80% as people opt to stay home

Normally the winter period in July is the most profitable time of year for children's theatre companies and cinema owners in Argentina. But swine flu has changed everything this year.

Although school holidays were extended by a month because of swine flu, most parents have followed the advice of the authorities and kept their children at home, well away from crowded places.

The government has not ordered the closure of big public places, but people have nevertheless rushed to cancel tickets for sporting and cultural events.

They are worried about the H1N1 virus, which has led to some 65 deaths in South America's second-largest country.

For the first time since 1918, the famous Corrientes Avenue in Buenos Aires - Argentina's equivalent of Broadway - was set to be dark for 10 days, following the suspension of shows.

Curtain-closer

It is estimated that ticket sales have dropped by 80%.

The 9 July public holiday to commemorate independence has been extended by the government, which has decreed Friday "health day off".

The authorities have asked people not to travel during the long weekend and recommended that they stay at home.

Restaurants are also deserted
Restaurants are also deserted and depend more on home delivery

People are not only staying away from theatres and cinemas but also shopping centres, restaurants, buses, trains and work.

Local media have estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost, but according to economists, the true impact cannot be measured until the extent of swine flu across the country is established.

Roberto Dvoskin, of the University of San Andres, told BBC Mundo that the decision by the government not to order the closure of buildings - as they did in Mexico - is having a "drip-effect", which in the long term will have a worse impact on the economy.

"If everything were closed down with proper planning, for 10 or 12 days, the cost would be 1% of GDP," he says.

For Mr Dvoskin, market demand is currently influencing decisions, with an ultimately higher economic and social cost.

He says the problem is that to "take drastic measures for a limited period," carries with it potential political costs and "often governments prefer greater economic costs to lesser political ones".

Absenteeism

The high number of people infected with the virus in Argentina - according to the Ministry of Health, it could rise to more than 100,000 - is not the only reason for the high level of absenteeism from the workplace.

Many parents have had to stay at home to look after their children who will not be going back to school until the end of July.

And there are those who have had to stay at home to look after sick family members or are vulnerable themselves, such as pregnant women, diabetics, people with respiratory or heart problems, or with compromised immune systems.

It is estimated that in Buenos Aires - the province most affected - around 20% of public workers are off work.

But the government has taken some action.

Tourism slump

As in the case of Mexico, experts say that tourism has been badly hit because of swine flu.

Winter in the southern hemisphere is normally a boom period for the tourist trade, especially in the hugely popular ski centres like Bariloche, in the southern province of Rio Negro, or Las Lenas, in Mendoza, in the west.

Tourism is down in Argentina
But business is booming for face mask manufacturers

Some agencies have reported a 50% drop in the sale of package holidays.

The Argentine authorities have criticised the Brazilian government's recommendation to its own citizens to cancel trips to Argentina and Chile because of the flu. Santiago also questioned the decision.

The single confirmed fatality from swine flu in Brazil was someone who contracted the virus while on a trip to Buenos Aires.

Apart from Europeans, Brazilians visit Argentina more than any other group of foreign tourists.

Their absence is very much felt.

The president of the Association of Hoteliers and Restaurateurs of Mendoza, Alberto Romero asked people not to "panic without reason."

"If the World Health Organization says there is no need to cancel travel, I don't see why governments and media are generating fear," he said.

The blow inflicted by H1N1 virus has hit the tourism sector hard, which had already seen a decline in international visitors amid the global economic downturn.

But tellingly some sectors are doing well.

Production is up in factories that make face masks and disinfectant hand gel, while restaurants are depending increasingly for sales on home delivery as consumers avoid going out.



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