Coronavirus in Chile OPINION

Is a National Post-Pandemic Grand Bargain Possible?

President Sebastián Piñera announced the start of a new stage in the fight against the pandemic. In his address, broadcast on national television, he reiterated the actions taken so far, yet a change in tone was noticeable. Fewer bombastic phrases and fewer references to the successes achieved by our country compared to others.

In the speech on Sunday, he projected more humility and realism compared to the announcements since the start of the crisis on March 15. Even the president denied the premise he had held for so long, now saying “Chile was not prepared for this.”

In reality this turn was not coincidental. In just one week, the government’s strategy and narrative collapsed. The conception under which officials tried to position our country as exceptional guided the entire first stage. But the approach lost credibility when, because of the explosion of cases, an extensive quarantine had to be decreed for the Metropolitan Region.

The move came despite officials stating on multiple occasions that in no case would they follow this route because it didn’t suit our country. But that was during the stage of early triumphalism and celebration. This stage also included the president’s bold promise that everybody who needs a hospital bed, or a ventilator would get one. By God, I hope this becomes true for the over 2,000 people who are getting infected every day.

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The Changing Mind of Chile

The state of mind in the government is certainly not the same anymore. In the daily press points one can note a cold, almost macabre count, as the number of deceased shoots up. Health Minister Jaime Mañalich no longer cracks his black humor jokes, and the undersecretaries cannot hide their nervousness. But worst of all, the mind of citizens also changed. 

Gone are the “new normality” and the promise of a gradual restart of classes, both of which projected a little hope. Fear arose, doubts about the figures and the “certainty.” The frequent arrival of ventilators no longer triggers celebratory effects, when we hear at the same time that collapse is approaching faster than expected. Even the minister admitted the virus’ advance surprised him. Only slightly less than 10% of the critical patient infrastructure remains before the system collapses.

Mañalich noticed the reaction his words would trigger, when last week the public found out that daily new cases soared to 2,000 on average, including over 20 fatalities every day. Unexpected figures, which in a way dislodged the authority. In a slow and somewhat paternalistic tone, Mañalich said the explosive rise in infections could stem from the lack of “mutual trust” among the citizenry and authorities. And although the argument seemed self-critical, in passing he slipped citizens would not take the health crisis seriously – true, but a result of the prematurely announced “new normality.”

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Lack of Trust

Although he seemed to improvise, the truth is that the speech was carefully prepared, so much so that it coincided with a newspaper interview he gave. Jaime Mañalich tried to give sociological and political arguments to explain why the situation got out of control, without admitting to any error in the official strategy. And he is right partially.

Of course, trust in institutions collapsed. But this has been the case for years. Long before the social uprising of October 18, the country was hit by the Church’s abuse scandals, massive collusion among the biggest companies, irregular campaign financing and so on.

Without doubt, the recession will affect us dramatically. It’s also likely the demands to stop the corporate abuses and reach greater equality will return – certainly expressed in ways that will surprise our political elite even more. The mix of the social outbreak, unemployment, hunger, long quarantines, and mistrust can be highly explosive.

Exploring a Grand Bargain

The government explored a grand bargain to face this stage of the crisis and the immediate scenario after the acute phase of the pandemic. The president discussed this idea with his three predecessors – Ricardo Lagos, Eduardo Frei, and Michelle Bachelet – and intellectuals and party leaders. Undoubtedly, a condition for a popularly backed agreement is that it is very broad. It must incorporate civil society, academia, and all the relevant actors who don’t see political representatives favorably. The agreement must include all colors, almost without distinction.

That also implies major companies that behaved unethically in recent weeks, like Cencosud, Ripley and others, and accepted state funds to pay their workers, take responsibility for the damage they produce (after an outcry they returned the state money and paid normal wages). And of course, government palace La Moneda must ratify and validate the constitutional process, starting with the plebiscite, even if it could be postponed again for health reasons.

Because of the magnitude of the crisis and considering a social conflict has been dragging on since October, the idea of ​​a transversal pact has kindled political spirits. Socialist Senator José Miguel Insulza and Mario Desbordes, president of Piñera’s Renovación Nacional party, proposed a “new national accord.” Both wrote “there are no conditions to face a third successive crisis.”

However, it is essential that the president abandons his triumphalist attitude and becomes more careful about repeating mistakes like sending premature or confusing signals to the public. More humility, recognizing that pushing Chilean exceptionalism with dynamic quarantines was wrong, could go a long way toward helping all sectors to rally and confront a challenge that requires all sectors.

Translated by Christian Scheinpflug.

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