Coronavirus in Chile OPINION

Covid-19 Strategy: Chile vs. the World

It’s been a few decades since we Chileans convinced ourselves that we differed from the rest of Latin America. When in May 2010 – surprisingly – Chile became part of the OECD, that kind of rich world club, a feeling was buzzing around that a dream had come true for some: stop living on the continent and move to Europe. Although this is just an analogy, such national chauvinism explains partially the structural changes our country has experienced over the last decade which also culminated in the social uprising of October 18.

The uprising, to paraphrase Humberto Maturana, remains in parentheses due to Covid-19.

“Chile is more prepared than the other countries of Latin America and Italy.” This is how President Piñera started when our country was entering Phase 2. Considering his previous misadventures, like the Chilean “oasis” two weeks before October 18, one wonders if he has advisers who warn him that comparing Chile to other countries this way is not just undiplomatic, but poses risks. His real problem, of course, is not a lack of advisers, but his lack of ability to listen, a trait he seems to have more cultivated in this second term.

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Confusing Measures

The government has implemented a completely different strategy than almost all countries on the continent – I exclude Venezuela because its numbers are highly questionable. Most Latin American countries have opted for expansive quarantines and national lockdowns. Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Argentina recently have even extended confinement for two more weeks.

Chile, on the other hand, follows a strategy comprising two quite contradictory stages, plus an excess of trial and error, despite the experience available from other countries. Initially, the government signaled it would consider drastic measures, arguing that in the early days of April we would reach 400,000 infections (we have around 10,000 now). Fear gripped the population, which agreed to stay at home in line with “voluntary quarantine” recommendations. And the possibility of a mandatory national quarantine was palpable.

However, despite strong pressure from mayors and the Medical College, the government decreed confinement for only seven districts, almost all of them in eastern Santiago. The outbreak originated in these affluent areas, as residents returned from fancy holiday destinations in Europe and Asia. Mayors and the Medical College harshly criticized the measure, but they had a voice only at the technical roundtables the government set up to contain expertise and criticism.

The second stage of the strategy has comprised the total confinement of six – of 345 – administrative districts and partial confinement of some areas, which created tremendous confusion. But over the last two weeks, the government began to convey a rather dangerous optimism when cases fell three days in a row. The authorities made clear that in no case will they decree a national quarantine because “this is not the type of measure required by Chile.”

And health minister Jaime Mañalich went further, saying he is generally against quarantines because of the mental health problems and domestic violence they fomented. Valid arguments, which nevertheless cover up the true aim of the triumphalism. Before winter and peak contagion arrive the government wants to facilitate a false sense of security to stimulate the resumption of normal activities, prevent economic decline and yet higher unemployment. Two of Piñera’s role models, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, are taking a similar approach. However, this strategy clashes with an increase in confirmed cases and deaths in recent days, proving that we haven’t overcome the crisis by a long shot.

What’s the Price?

Chile’s authorities constantly insist the country overall performs better than the rest of the continent. That is the definite narrative, which even created an impasse with Argentina last week. But despite initial success and Sebastián Piñera’s permanent obsession with projecting leadership and creating results, not just Latin American countries keep imposing quarantines. Most countries the world over stick to this measure, following the experiences and lessons from those that were hit earlier. I hope the need to regain the support lost since the social uprising does not lead to Sebastián Piñera’s undoing, although that would be irrelevant compared to Chileans’ health damaged and lives lost this false certainty could bring.

Translated by Christian Scheinpflug

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