SANTIAGO – Health authorities are concerned that a new wave of coronavirus infections is looming on the horizon and that it will hit Chile in January 2021. In several regions, cases have already increased substantially. Critics wonder if the government can even speak of a “second wave” while the first is still washing over the country; they also wonder if loosening coronavirus restrictions was a good idea.
Compared to prior months like June, when nearly 7,000 new coronavirus cases were registered in one day, the national coronavirus numbers seem to have decreased in Chile. Quarantine measures and other restrictions have been lifted in large parts of the country and in the heavily-hit Metropolitan Region even bars and restaurants have reopened.
The reality, however, might be a lot darker than official statistics make it appear. In regions from north to south, numbers are climbing drastically, with reports coming in of collapsed hospitals. During his Monday, Nov. 30, presser, Health Minister Enrique Paris said, “We see that in nine regions there is an increase in cases, and [a decrease in] only seven regions.” He added that the Coquimbo Region had 52 percent increase in the last week and that the Magallanes, Valparaíso, and Metropolitan Regions also had increases.
The next day, Tuesday, Dec. 1, Paris said the northern Tarapacá and Antofagasta Regions are now among the ones with the biggest increases in new cases. He did not even mention the Biobío Region, which exceeded the Metropolitan Region in new cases despite a smaller number of inhabitants. Some of the worst hit cities, like Talcahuano, Hualpén, San Pedro de la Paz, and Coronel, are found there.
Are Citizens To Blame For Second Wave?
Paris expressed his concern and pointed at the Chilean people searching for an explanation. “I see people on the street … with the wrong mask on, smoking on the street, talking on the phone, yelling without a mask. This is very dangerous behavior, because it spreads viruses.”
But can the government blame its citizens for the spread of the virus? Experts from the Medical College point to the contradictory measures from the government, such as reopening bars, opening international borders, and allowing interregional travel again. They point out that the authorities are giving mixed signals that the virus is under control, while the opposite seems true.
A remarkable moment occurred during the Health Minister’s presser on Saturday, Nov. 28. Confronted with a study by the Universidad del Desarrollo which estimated that there were over 3.2 times more people infected in Chile than health authorities had been able to detect, the minister acknowledged its truth. “We have had many more patients than what we can detect with the PCR,” he said. Similar studies have been performed in other countries, and once again the question arises: Why lift restrictions so easily if there continue to be so many (undetected) cases?
“Cut the Transmission Chain”
A group of health professionals that has both criticized and collaborated with the Health Ministry is the aforementioned Medical College; and, yet, even though government officials are beginning to warn about a possible “catastrophic” second wave in January 2021, thus far, according to Medical College secretary José Miguel Bernucci, in a conversation with Cooperativa, the government still has not included the Medical College in the preparation – similar to what happened in March earlier this year.
“We have to cut the chain of transmission, we have to prevent people from getting infected, because it is the only way we can save lives,” Bernucci said. “Precisely to avoid a second wave, we should start doing things today, like risk communication campaigns, avoiding continuing with lifting measures and opening borders.” He added that reinforcing hospitals is not enough: the focus should be on preventing new infections.
The Health Ministry, however, seems to have other plans. Warning about a second wave, with the first seemingly still underway, Health Minister Paris said they are incorporating more beds and personnel to the health system. In the most extreme circumstances, Chile could register up to 10,000 new cases a day in January, the Ministry said. Nevertheless, instead of preparing for it by taking preventive steps, borders have reopened and cities continue to see restrictions lifted.