Coronavirus in Chile OPINION

A New Minister and an Accord to Face the Worst

After a very complex period for the government, within just 48 hours it managed to at least signal some control amid the pandemic, which now has Chile among the countries with the highest number of infections per million inhabitants in the world. The arrival of Enrique Paris to the Health Ministry – replacing a worn-out Jaime Mañalich – was received not only positively by the opposition and medical associations, but also by the population.

Gone are Mañalich’s puzzling phrases, who due to loquacity and “spoken thought” – similar to President Sebastián Piñera – said the virus could “become good,” but later admitted all theories he had subscribed to at the beginning of the pandemic crumbled like a “house of cards.”

Although the numbers are still alarming and it is difficult to see how they could change under a new minister, Paris already achieved to radiate some hope. And this counts for the Economic and Social Agreement La Moneda and the opposition concluded after intense negotiations. Although the Communist Party, the Radical Party and Democratic Revolution – the latter member of Frente Amplio coalition – were subtracted, the agreement will achieve broad support in Congress when 13 projects must be voted in a little over a week.

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A Broad Agreement

However, the main risk is that, just like with the November agreement, in which participants hammered out a schedule to modify the Constitution, civil society and organizations were completely ignored again. Hence, the lack of legitimacy could generate a conflict, even more so, considering the poor perception of the political class.

Generally, the recent socio-economic agreement allows for the extension of benefits for another three months. The most important is the Emergency Family Income, for which funds will significantly increase. Also, the Employment Protection Law will imply that eligible workers – over 600,000 – will receive between 40% and 50% of their salary for another 90 days.

In addition, it includes incentives for investment and hiring and a guarantee for loans large companies can access to get liquidity. This package will cost US$12 billion, added to the US$12.5 billion announced in April, on account of the 2% constitutional disaster allowance.

Health Rules

But let’s get back to health. Paris replaced Mañalich at a complex moment, which we could describe as a borderline situation. After two critical months, little remains of that early triumphalism the minister closest to Piñera indulged. Today, the state of mind of the authorities is as dark as the cold autumn days we face.

The confusion and communicational errors in the days before Paris took over were alarming. The story told by La Moneda of this being “the darkest, blackest and longest night” infected people so much it was impossible to visualize “the end of the tunnel.” Hence the need to have a new technical driver during the crisis. Paris knows about communications – he did the rounds as TV panelist – which will help him take a first turn, even if in form rather than content, but that is already a good sign.

The challenge for the new minister is enormous. Mañalich’s downplaying of the Covid-19 threat (“this won’t be more than a cold”) in January, or refusing extensive quarantines, despite pressure from mayors and the Medical College, led to bad results. The truth is that the former minister lost us two valuable months in which he imposed his theories and showed his arrogance.

Paris not only has the advantage of being a good communicator, but is also an open person, even becoming an adviser to Michelle Bachelet. But to begin to regain the public’s confidence, the minister must start with something simple, which would make Piñera uncomfortable: He should say that the previous strategy failed. That act of transparency would be key to gaining credibility for this doctor, who has, as one of those strange coincidences in life, the same name as the doctor who accompanied Salvador Allende in La Moneda during the bombing of September 11, 1973.

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