SANTIAGO – The Chilean government has received international praise for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as for its low mortality rate. Some experts disagree on the figures and the measures the Ministry of Health has taken. They warn that these decisions could end up having disastrous effects.
The COVID-19 pandemic is circling the globe. Some countries like Spain and Italy have been hit hard, others, less so. In some cases it’s luck and in others it seems to have to do with the measures those countries are taking (or not) to reduce the spread of the virus. From nationwide testing to mandatory quarantines, the implementation of these measures has been crucial to flattening the curve of new cases.
In Latin America, most countries have taken immediate action. Argentina and Peru completely closed down the countries and guaranteed money and supplies to their citizens. Other countries like Brazil and Ecuador have taken the minimal steps to halt the disease, and they have suffered the consequences.
Chile has received international praise for its low number of deaths in relation to the amount of infected. This has been attributed to an aggressive testing campaign and to the country’s healthcare system. In fact, these same low numbers recently inspired the government to lift some restrictions, a move that has some health professionals worried.
Minister of Health Jaime Mañalich has said that they are implementing a “dynamic quarantine,” which means that some municipalities will be placed in quarantine while others will have theirs lifted. These measures will be based on the amount of cases in the area, the state of the healthcare system, and the presence of citizens with COVID-19 risk factors.
The quarantine map, however, doesn’t always seem to follow these guidelines. As of this writing, the municipalities of Algarrobo, La Reina, Quinta Normal, Angol, and Curarrehue, among others, have had a rise in confirmed cases and passed the 40 infected for every 100,000 rate but still aren’t in quarantine.
The sub secretary of Health, Paula Daza, said in an interview with daily La Tercera “The important thing is to diminish the spread of the virus.” According to Daza, a complete quarantine as impracticable due to the social and economic damage this can cause.
The dean of the science faculty at Mayor University, Doctor Enrique Paris, said, “It is not the same having 40 infected for every 100,000 people in Vitacura than in a municipality with fewer resources.” Referencing the devastating effects that the virus could have on these communities if it were to run rampant.
Chile Today contacted another health expert (who asked to remain anonymous due to his direct work for the Chilean government, hereafter “AE”), and he said, “Complete quarantines are very hard to maintain because they do too much damage both psychologically to citizens and economically to society. Because of this they should only be used as a last resort.” He added, “I think they [the government representatives] are doing it right. The idea of opening and closing municipalities according to the number of infected is good because it means that the numbers fall and the issues that come with a complete quarantine will be avoided.”
The Lack of Ventilators
One of the main issues is the lack of ventilators in the country. In Valparaíso, they only have enough resources for 22 critical cases, while Easter Island can only treat two. Meanwhile, in Arica they received 28 new ventilators, however 20 are ineffective against the coronavirus.
When the Ministry of Health was pushed on the issue it answered that it was currently in a “war” with other countries to obtain more ventilators from overseas. It had to go outside Chile due to national suppliers not being able to place an exact date on the arrival of the ventilators.
The ministry also said that at the moment there are about 14 different ventilator prototypes being designed in the country. The University of Concepción is currently working on building a prototype of a ventilator designed by MIT. The Austral University of Chile is working on its own design and is just waiting for the green light to fabricate 100 replicas of the device.
When asked about the ventilators, AE said, “we have the same issue with the face masks, most countries in the world are asking for the same thing. While some countries have the ability to produce them themselves, we don’t know how many we can make in Chile.” He added, “The effort that Chilean universities have taken to make ventilators are good, and they will be helpful for when we reach the peak; the fear is that they won’t be ready for the peak.”
Is Chile Testing Enough?
International bodies have praised Chile’s testing capabilities, saying that Chile is proof that massive testing can help lower the impact of COVID-19. However, the figures coming from the Ministry have come under scrutiny by some.
The regions of Araucanía, Coquimbo, Antofagasta, and Arica y Parinacota, have issued fewer tests than recommended by the Ministry of Health. The main reason behind this is a lack of medical supplies to complete the tests. As a result, only those in critical condition have been diagnosed while others have been turned away.
This lack of proper medical supplies and oversight has been implicated in Chile’s youngest coronavirus death. Fabiola Machuca, who was only 21, died in Talca from COVID-19, a fact that was not known until well after her funeral. Two weeks earlier, she had gone to the hospital with symptoms of the virus, but she was turned away because she hadn’t had contact with anyone who had tested positive, and, thereafter, she never received the proper care, nor did those who came in contact with her take proper preventive measures.
When asked about testing, AE said, “The PCR test, which is the more secure one, is only done on those whose symptoms are severe. This is mostly due to a lack of resources. Chile simply can’t massively test its citizens.” In addition, in his opinion, “It’s not necessary to test people who have had a healthy recovery, since they will have antibodies that will help their bodies fight off the disease … There have been some cases where people have been reinfected by the virus but these are exceptions more than the norm.”
A Low Mortality Rate
Chile has also been praised for its low mortality rate. AE responded, however, that the percentage depends on too many variables. “There is no clear answer as to why the mortality is so low in Chile, although the percentage tends to go up and down. It depends mostly on how you calculate the percentage.”
By way of example, he said, “South Korea did massive testing, and because they had a much bigger base, they only had a 0.8% mortality rate. If Chile did more testing our mortality rate would be even lower. The best way to figure it out would be to measure it according to the ages. If you see it that way, you’ll see the mortality percentage goes way up with older citizens while it will drop with younger citizens.”
When asked about additional measures the government should be taking, AE pointed to the Italian town of Vò. “After their first case they tested everyone in town and found out that 3% to 4% of them already had the disease. The virus is already everywhere, so it doesn’t really matter if kids go to school or not. They need to isolate the infected and look for people who have the antibodies of the disease to have them help the infected … They should [also] isolate anyone who doesn’t have any taste or smell for 14 days. COVID-19 isn’t the only disease that does this, but it is one of the first symptoms of the disease. In military bases, they have everyone who enters take a whiff of vinegar. If they don’t smell it, they send them to isolation for 14 days.”
According to health sub secretary Paula Daza, almost all Chileans are probably going to get the disease. “Nearly everyone will get infected, but we need people to get sick progressively, that way health services will have an adequate response.”
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.