An immensely successful vaccine roll-out could not prevent a new Covid-19 outbreak. The vaccines are good, and the campaign is also a result of the business-like approach President Sebastián Piñera took. Unfortunately, the politician Sebastián Piñera is getting in the way.
Here’s a paradox. Chile has seen a successful vaccination process, inoculating five million people with a first dose and about 20% of the target population with a second one. But at the same time, it is experiencing a brutal second wave, much more complex than the first of June 2020.
The figures are so alarming that a discussion on canceling the April 11 elections has already begun. In addition to governors, mayors and councilors, Chileans will elect the 155 members of the constituent convention that will draft a new Constitution. According to the medical college, a decision should be made within two weeks.
If you look at what is happening in the world, especially in Europe, Chile is experiencing a similar outbreak. Are vaccines not working? The truth is that there are still more uncertainties than certainties. Talk is now emerging that a third dose might be necessary to tackle the mutations. It is estimated that 17 such mutations exist, with the British and Brazilian ones among the most dangerous.
Why Cases Surged
The high number of infections and deaths our country has experienced for the last three weeks results from:
- Vacation permit: Health Minister Enrique Paris acknowledged enabling citizens to request permission to travel to different parts of the country during January could have been a mistake. The data here is very categorical. Most regions and cities that receive more visitors during the summer are now in full quarantine because of an explosive increase in cases.
- Pandemic fatigue: As in the rest of the world, people are exhausted from the direct and indirect effects of the virus. Hence, it was necessary to maintain a more aggressive narrative and strategy that would sustain tension and alert.
- False safety of vaccines: This point is linked to the previous one. I think the government, and especially President Sebastián Piñera, made a mistake when the first doses arrived and they anxiously showed off their achievements. Undoubtedly the president saw an opportunity at that time and went full Piñera style. He appeared daily with activities related to the vaccination process, even during his three-week vacation. And although Paris was more cautious, the government’s narrative clearly sharpened the public perception that the problem was under control.
In the last two weeks we have seen a strong increase in cases, reporting over 5,000 daily. Monthly mortality in February, mostly linked to Covid-19, was the highest since 1945. But, in addition, ICUs are reaching the limits with 90% of occupancy, the positivity rate is on average 8% compared to the WHO’s recommendation of 5 %, and the transmission rate is 1.022. Hospitalized and critically ill patients are now much younger. In 2020 the average age of patients was 69, now it is 53. There has also been a 62% increase in critically ill patients under 40.
Back to Square One
In this context, authorities decided to confine 97% of the population on weekends, and subsequently quarantines were imposed in much of the Metropolitan Region, although the government resisted the measure for a long time due to pressure from organized business.
Undoubtedly, the measures are correct but late. I have the impression that Paris came under political and economic pressure. The doctor and former chief of the influential medical college has changed his tone, trying to distance himself from the story of Piñera’s vaccine success.
The government will have to toughen sanitary measures next month. It knows that this will impose significant economic costs, which will add to the depressed scenario that’s been dragging on since October 2019 and created a double crisis.
But Piñera’s main concern should be that despite all the effort of an exemplary vaccination process, he is not able to capitalize on it internally. So far, the polls remain elusive. His ratings have even trended downward. He has 14% support according to the two most serious pollsters. Undoubtedly, the figure still reflects the social crisis, in addition to the mistakes he has made during the pandemic.
Recently, I was interviewed by two European outlets, both inquiring about the successful vaccination campaign. They thought Piñera must be popular like a rockstar. I tried to give them political arguments at first, but later I realized that the explanation was simpler. In the vaccination process, the businessman Piñera reappeared. Parallel negotiation with several laboratories, excellent logistics and distribution were his strengths.
The problem is that a double crisis like the one we have experienced in Chile, and the one that will come after a pandemic, requires the political Piñera. And that one has had a myriad of problems in his second term.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.