For weeks, the government tried to convince us that the coronavirus problem was somewhat temporary. It even said the virus would last less in Chile than in the rest of the world. Now we know better.
First it was established that public sector employees should return to their offices at the end of April. Then officials spoke of a gradual return to classes starting early May, though Health Minister Jaime Mañalich expressed dissatisfaction with the Education Ministry’s decision to keep classes suspended. All of this happened under the slogan of “new normality.” The government took it from European countries that already exceeded the peak of coronavirus infections and sought a return to something like pre- pandemic normality.
This new normality some countries sought was based on a sustained decline of new cases, after reaching peak contagion. But the Chilean case is clearly different. A “new normal” was proposed when the crisis was not even on the horizon. Yet the government assumed that – to put it mildly – San Juan’s summer in mid-April, when daily new cases oscillated between 400 and 500, was the supposed plateau. Hence, President Sebastián Piñera augured the beginning of the end of Covid-19, contrary to what most experts said.
The promise of a return to a more normal life by, for example, lifting partial quarantines and allowing cafes and malls to reopen under social distancing protocols failed, however, because of the impossibility to foresee the disease’s trajectory. The government’s plateau doubled, then tripled within days. In response, officials started differentiating between synchronous and asynchronous cases to blur the numbers.
Piñera – a master in conjuring imagined and hollow realities – fell silent in his own game of trying to beat the coronavirus with opinions and instructions. He couldn’t visualize the fact that coronavirus effects would differ between the socio-economic groups living in affluent, less densely populated areas, and those in densely populated middle- and lower-class districts, where access to decent healthcare is also more difficult. This reality could explain the lamentable rise in fatalities.
Once Covid-19 reached less affluent socio-economic groups, it spread almost exponentially. Thus, we have to question the promise of a “new normality,” made in mid-April, and therefore if we will be in a condition of a “safe return,” which Piñera proposed on April 24.
More Felipe Vergara:
Faced with the failure to keep these two promises, the government handed out well-worn and upgraded statements. With a focus on war terminology, it advanced a campaign of fear. This way it hoped to distract citizens but ignored that Piñera’s phrase of “we are at war” pushed his approval ratings below 10% – the worst in Chile’s history – when he used it during the social uprising. Then emerged “the greatest battle of Chile in the last century,” the “battle for Santiago,” coronavirus being a “formidable threat,” and, recently, the pseudo war against “viroterrorism,” according to Mañalich. These terms are ideal for a game show like The Alphabet Game, whose Chilean adaptation Pasapalabra is highly popular. But they aren’t adequate in a pandemic like the one we are experiencing.
We cannot ignore or devalue the fact that compared to several OECD and Latin American countries, the mortality rate in Chile is considerably lower. However, a great sin of the government in the face of the pandemic is the generation of expectations, presuming and transmitting overconfidence, without the ability to imagine that we have not yet reached even the peak.
The government’s communication errors in this regard are serious, as is the inability to take them on. This meant people felt greater freedom to go out and stick to the way the government has transmitted this normality. The most likely starting point of this situation is Piñera having is photo taken at Plaza Dignidad (respectively Plaza Italia), which is Ground Zero of the uprising.
From a communicational perspective, messages create realities. Therefore, the way in which the government transmits them is the way in which citizens acts.
Felipe Vergara (@felipevergaram) is a communications expert and has a regular column at Emol news portal. Apart from discussing current events on his radio show, he also teaches at Universidad Andrés Bello.