Coronavirus in Chile NATIONAL

Overcrowding and Covid-19: The Reality in Illegal Settlements

Santiago – The coronavirus lockdown has forced the poorest in Chile to live in the worst conditions. The Ribera Sur camp in Colina is but one unfortunate example in the capital. Without additional resources, it could be hard to control a Covid-19 outbreak there if one takes root.

The inhabitants of the Ribera Sur camp, located in the Colina district in Santiago are suffering some of the worst living conditions, including overcrowding in small shelters, food shortages, no sewage, no running water, uncontrolled delinquency, and the inability to access work.

Based on the most recent survey by Techo para Chile (“Techo”), an independent organization that seeks to help the poorest to build and rebuild their homes, as well as provide the basic requirements they need, nearly 220 families are living in this settlement, and 85 percent of those are foreigners, mostly from the Dominican Republic.

The pandemic has hit Ribera Sur especially hard. Peoples’ livelihoods have dramatically changed since the lockdown began. Inhabitants have suffered both economically and socially. For example, parents who are trying to maintain their children in a healthy environment face an impossible task. Drugs, alcohol, and illegal parties are everywhere, and, with the quarantine, inhabitants are forced to live alongside day in and day out in cramped conditions, and a sense of respect has been lost.

Sofía Ruiz-Tagle, Techo’s coordinator in chief of the Ribera Sur camp, explained to Chile Today that nearly 90% of the families are living in critical situations due to the pandemic:

“The main explanation to this serious issue is, of course, the inability of people to access their usual jobs, but there is a matter that further aggravates the problem, which is that although it is people who could access the State’s [resources],  they are still with a great debt. They owe a lot in comparison to what they receive, so they are completely focused on paying their debts that mainly come from electricity and water bills. For example, the electricity bills did not arrive for five months, so those months accumulated, and they received very expensive bills.”

Scars of the Pandemic and Social Crisis

Ruiz-Tagle also said that Techo para Chile was deeply disappointed about the lack of help families of Ribera Sur have received from local authorities: “The Colina municipality doesn’t give sufficient aid in terms of social security because they want people to leave the place, so the best thing they can do is to look the other way. For example, they showed up with a couple of basic boxes that were not enough for the entire camp. Only one-fifth of the people received it”, she said.

Based on another survey (by CASEN), the percentage of households that are overcrowded in the Metropolitan Region has reached 8.1 percent. This number, in the context of social distancing requirements as a result of the coronavirus, is highly concerning to authorities because it puts people more at risk of contracting the virus. Faced with a scenario of even greater concentrations in overcrowded settlements like Ribera Sur, it is all but inevitable that people will contract the disease. 

Techo´s Strategies To Counter These Difficulties

In the Ribera Sur camp, Tagle explained the urgent matters Techo hopes to fix: “One of our biggest struggles is to put a break on drug trafficking and crime, which grew a lot during the pandemic, so we have been arranging some meetings with Carabineros [Chile’s national police force], PDI [Chile’s investigations police], and the municipality, but, as I said before, they are not very willing to help.”

For the last three months, Techo has also presented the camp with a common pot of food. “Ultimately, what Techo suggests is that we finance 50 percent of the common pot, and both neighbors and other organizations finance the other 50 percent. The idea behind this is that the community generates a little sense of belonging, and not that the food is just given away,” Ruiz-Tagle added.

Chile’s ‘Olla Común’ Through History

Inequalities And Vulnerability

Urban accommodations for many in Chile have simply become too expensive and out of reach for many families. That is why informal settlements have considerably increased in the last decades, but in these places, people are constantly exposed to the elements, as well as crimes, killings, and other violent and dangerous circumstances.

Water is also another factor that limits these families. According to statistics from the Ministry of Housing, nearly 22 percent of illegal settlements do not have drinking water systems, so people need to carry water to their homes, which increases the possibilities of coronavirus contagion. 

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see that people in these marginalized conditions are, and will remain, vulnerable to the virus for as long as it’s here.

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