By Valentina Fuentes and Philip Sanders
Two months ago, Chile was admired for its surgical approach to the pandemic — testing widely and quarantining by neighborhood. Today it has among the world’s highest rates of per-capita infections and its once-praised health minister has been forced to resign.
Initial assessments suggest that Chile followed the lead of wealthy nations only to realize — once again — that a large percentage of its citizens are poor, an echo of last year’s disconnect between government and nation when a subway fare increase led to massive riots.
“There are areas of Santiago where I had no awareness of the magnitude of poverty and overcrowding,” Jaime Manalich, the health minister who quit on Saturday, told a local TV station on May 28. It came as no surprise to everyday Chileans who have long complained about the divide between the foreign-educated elites who run the government and the rest of the society.
On Tuesday, Chile announced 5,013 new cases, bringing total infections to 184,449 and said a further 31,412 previously unreported cases would be added in the next few days. That would take its infection rate well above 10,000 per 1 million people, more than any other country besides Qatar. Some 3,383 people have died.
What went wrong in Chile goes to the heart of the debate over lockdowns, which health experts now acknowledge work well for the haves but not for the have-nots. In the end, Chile’s virus fight seems to have fallen victim to the same factors that sparked crises in other emerging markets — poverty, overcrowding and a massive off-the-books workforce. Staying home for long periods, the world has learned rather painfully, isn’t a real option for many.
“If the government is going to make decisions about a world it doesn’t know, then it should include people from that world in the decision-making process,” said Diego Pardow, executive president of the Espacio Público think tank. “The problem with this government is that it just surrounds itself with its own people.”
Like the rest of Latin America, the pandemic arrived in Chile as the wealthy returned from vacations in the U.S. and Europe and passed the virus around offices and social circles. When they were forced into lockdown, they did so in generously spaced apartments and country retreats.
By the end of April, the official case count painted the picture of an epidemic under control, and President Sebastian Pinera’s administration started laying the groundwork to reopen offices and shopping malls.
But cases started cropping up at a rate of over 5,000 per day as maids and household workers carried the virus home. The government, struggling to explain the surge, hypothesized that higher testing could be the reason why. But that didn’t jibe as more results came back positive — 30% of all tests by the end of May versus 10% in April.
It wasn’t long before outrage swept the same streets that exploded in social unrest last year. Anti-government demonstrations in October saw almost a third of supermarkets in the country vandalized or looted and turned the city center into a war zone of smashed lights, debris, burnt-out buildings and graffiti.
In both cases, the chaos can be traced to discontent among the overlooked poor and a government seen as out of touch with its people.
Decades ago, Chile started tearing down old alleyways of crumbling single-story slums known as cités and built high-rise blocks with little or no green space to house the city’s poor.
As the blocks went up, many more than 20 stories high, immigrants fleeing Haiti, Venezuela and Colombia poured into them. There are as many as 1.5 million foreign-born residents in the country of over 18 million, the National Statistics Agency estimates. Many work informally as maids, cleaners or gardeners in wealthy areas of the city.
For these folks, the government had no quick fix to slow the virus, protect employment or make sure they were getting enough food and assistance.
“Many of them were immigrants living in overcrowded conditions,” said Aldo Gaggero, a virologist at the Universidad de Chile medical school. “Some of them didn’t want to be tested because an infection meant they couldn’t go out, and without work they have no food.”
Pinera, a billionaire and Harvard-trained economist, ordered a citywide lockdown on May 15. Days later, food riots broke out in the south Santiago neighborhood of El Bosque and sporadically in other parts of town. The government had promised to deliver parcels of food, but the program was slow to get started and faced logistical issues.
“The government thought about the lock-down in terms of people like themselves, as if all Chile were upper-middle class, people that can stay home and work from there,” said Claudio Fuentes, a political scientist at Universidad Diego Portales. “They failed to guarantee the isolation of infected people in poorer areas.”
Pinera’s administration is now racing to address the issue. More than 130 “sanitary residences” have been set up, where infected people for whom isolation would otherwise be impossible can relocate while they recover. The government has also imported hundreds of ventilators and more than tripled the number of intensive care beds, enabling hospitals to cope with the flood of patients.
On Saturday, Chile also announced a $12 billion stimulus package that will boost income for poor families and the unemployed, while also subsidizing job creation.