A social worker from one of Santiago’s working class districts recounts her emotional rollercoaster amid the pandemic-induced recession and crime wave. After lonely days on end locked in her house, with a newborn, far from family, Marcela sought solace in her faith. She also had to grapple with the deaths of loved ones and a challenging community life in Buin.
Lockdowns, unemployment, escalating crime – and rumors of impending food scarcity. This was a normal day in one of the metropolitan region’s most vulnerable areas, where drug and alcohol abuse is widespread.
Welfare worker Marcela Cantuarias had to deal with these challenges in Buin, about 38km south of the center of Santiago.
Inside the Lockdown
When the pandemic arrived in Chile in March 2020, Marcela was on maternity leave and in constant lockdown in her small two-story house, which she shares with her husband, Gabriel, and her mother-in-law.
It’s a typical cement house built to withstand the seismic shifts Chileans know well.
Marcela felt trapped in the structure, unable to leave, and riding a rollercoaster of fear, anxiety, frustration and stress. Between March and August she stayed alone in the house to protect her health.
“It was frustrating being in the house all the time, being pregnant. And then when I had my baby, no one could visit me in the hospital, there was no baby shower,” Marcela told Chile Today. “I was happy with the birth of my baby but I felt very alone. I was very sad, because I couldn’t share this moment with those I loved, like my family. I needed my family, my parents. I was feeling so stressed and lonely.”
The Incoming Recession
Gabriel lost his job due to the pandemic, so Marcela’s wage had to feed the entire family. “Surely, Chile is experiencing the most significant impact economically in its history,” she said. “There have been a lot less opportunities for work, a lot of businesses are closed and many are without work.”
The OECD reported Chile’s unemployment rate peaked in July at about 12 percent, almost double from the year before, as many workers were put out of work by lockdown. The organization projects the country will endure a deep recession, and a GDP drop of 5-7 percent.
While a rebound is expected later this year, the organization warned a second outbreak could hamper the uptick.
“Many People I Knew Lost Their Lives”
Chile has suffered over 18,000 Covid-19 related deaths and counting, accounting for almost 3 percent of coronavirus cases. “Many people I knew lost their lives: friends, neighbors and work colleagues,” Marcela said. “The virus has killed many, not necessarily just older people, but young adults, teens and children too.”
She added, “here in Chile, it has been very, very deadly, especially in June and July where we had hundreds of people die each day. So people were very fearful and in states of panic, they thought it was all over.”
Amid the distress, water and beans became most sought after, with many in Marcela’s community scrambling to bulk buy items.
“There were even rumors that at any moment there would be no food in the shops,” Marcela said. “I went to the Buin shops and the shelves were empty. I couldn’t find items like water, chlorine, lentils, beans, nor alcohol. It was chaotic, people were afraid of not knowing what was going to happen the next day.”
For Marcela, Buin, where she has lived most of her life, is the answer to Santiago Central’s choking congestion and urban sprawl. “It’s a beautiful community that has more agriculture and a lot more vegetation than Santiago Central, and only in the last two years has had a lot of new residential construction work,” she told Chile Today. “The people of Santiago Central have been moving to this area because the center has seen growing congestion.”
The burgeoning community has been hit hard by the pandemic, as many lost their jobs and lacked money for living expenses. “This community suffers from a lot of poverty and [has] people in much need,” she said.
Chile’s center-right government has implemented various measures in response to the pandemic. In Buin economic subsidies and food deliveries to the poorest have helped, as have community-run soup kitchens. Aljazeera, however, has reported many of these soup kitchens have been financed by crime gangs.
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, crime soared everywhere. With typical hyperbole, TV news reported rising crime rates, including more frequent carjackings and assaults. Marcela thinks rising crime is related to surging unemployment. “There have been many, many carjackings, a lot of assaults in the street, people being killed, and robberies of small businesses,” she said. “A lot of people I know have been robbed or assaulted, and some have died defending their properties.”
The head of the Carabineros police force, general Ricardo Yañez, told Aljazeera that the lockdowns and curfews have created problems for some criminals. “It’s more complex for them to carry out traditional crimes, so they are resorting to more serious crimes, and that generates more violence,” he said.
At the height of the pandemic in June officials reported over 8,000 new cases per day. After strict quarantine measures were implemented, including military deployment to enforce lockdowns, new infections fell to about 1,000 on average per day.
While the quarantines have been relaxed in subsequent months and especially during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the government has recently tightened measures again. Since Christmas, the number of daily cases has been rising to over 4,000 per day by mid-January.
By mid-January, Chile had registered nearly over 700,000 cases, 24,000 active cases at average and over 18,000 deaths.
Jade is a freelance journalist who has written and edited articles for a number of websites and news organisations, including Thomson Reuters, Fairfax, News Limited, AAP and some Chilean news outlets.