Coronavirus in Chile OPINION

Pushing “Normality” – The Government’s Next Unforced Error

Although certainties are currently in short supply, we can say that the coronavirus does not show homogeneous behavior. Since patient zero appeared in Wuhan – and it remains unclear how the individual contracted the virus – it has surprised us by hitting Asia, then Europe, Africa and finally America with different intensity. But its disconcerting behavior has not only occurred at territorial level – symptoms multiplied and the at-risk population grew.

It’s thus clear that evolution in Europe and the US, compared to Latin America, is very different. While in Madrid, Lombardy, or New York the pandemic became a nightmare, with chilling figures – reaching over 1,000 daily deaths – our continent must have faced a less aggressive form. As autumn begins, Covid-19 will coexist with other seasonal infections such as influenza. Fortunately, being roughly two months behind hard-hit countries also enables learning, so we face more of a planned crisis.

Although the results of regional strategies differ, Latin America has generally experienced a lower number of infections and less mortality. Despite the curve being as steep as in Europe or the US, its advance is slower. And that’s hard and concrete data. Maybe it’s genetics? The climate? Good governance? Learning ability? Discipline? Of course, it’s premature to chant victory with winter and cold season just around the corner. Worse, the first peak has not even arrived and we remain far away from being able to turn the page. Yet, we witness an absurd dispute among neighboring countries about who’s done better.

Entering a global recession that looks to become historic, many countries – starting in Europe which is already experiencing three months of crisis – are trying to timidly signal a return to “normality.” Spain, for example, has just allowed a measure to improve the mental health of the population, permitting a parent one daily walk with up to three children. Until recently, only children older than 14 could leave their homes. The country also tries to jump-start commerce through a campaign roughly translated as “We’ll Be Back” to encourage workers and customers. Meanwhile, Donald Trump in the US desperately seeks to regain lost popularity, saying the country will reopen commerce and some areas of production, although it registers the world’s highest Covid-19 death toll.

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What’s ‘Normal’?

In Latin America the picture is different. Argentina has decreed a tight national quarantine exceeding 50 days; Colombia plans to lift restrictions once two months have passed in mid-May. Peru maintains drastic measures, even though the economic numbers are becoming complicated. And Chile appears as the country most eager to quickly lift restrictions, which have so far included only partial quarantines. President Sebastián Piñera surprisingly announced a plan called “The New Normality,” adopted from, he admitted, Austria’s leader, Sebastian Kurz, and which even the WHO is promoting. For Chile’s president, “normality” implies first the resumption of commerce and opening of shopping malls, and second the return of public workers to their offices.

For the first, a protocol was developed with recommendations for stores, including sanitization procedures, number of people per square meter, protective equipment, and others.

Regarding the second, Piñera informed his ministers and undersecretaries on a Friday afternoon that 48 hours later telework for some 60,000 public employees would end and in-person work at the offices would resume. That measure had nothing to do with common sense, otherwise it would have been based on considerations around logistics, coordination, and especially health and hygiene protocols for offices, common areas, dining halls, and others. Public employees criticized the announcements, leading even to court actions, and refused to appear at their workplaces on Monday or any day of the week.

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A Boomerang

The national retail business association reiterated it would not reopen mass commerce before the peak has passed – definitely not before May. The government resented that setback, because it eroded Piñera’s authority. But perhaps the harshest blow to the leader came from within his coalition, Chile Vamos. Party leaders warned his plan carried high risks and asked him not to indulge in an excess of triumphalism, before they publicly rejected the measures and the entire ‘new normality.’ In reality, the term ‘normality’ is prone to confusion. And recognizing the error, the government changed the slogan – just one week later – to “Safe Return.”

But La Moneda’s mistakes wouldn’t end there. On the day of the announcements, some protesters returned to occupy the monument to General Baquedano at ‘Ground Zero’ of Chile’s uprising near Baquedano metro station. They felt certainly motivated by the president’s unprecedented and provocative visit to the place a few weeks ago, in the middle of a local lockdown. To this adds the climax of this series of unfortunate events: a dispute, rude in tone, between his friend and health minister Jaime Mañalich and the education minister, plus the government spokesperson. The reason? Mañalich, who’s also a medic, said closing all schools from March 16 was an error because it prevented massive vaccination of children younger than 10.

But the minister did not say that the vaccines were reallocated to the armed forces and that Piñera ordered the closure, against the view of an advisory committee stacked with experts, which, by the way, have played a rather muted role in recent weeks.

Via the backdoor, Piñera tried to install, unsuccessfully, a new normality to regain control of the agenda and send a political signal that our country will resume life, centered on the much clearer concept of “coronavirus mode,” and not focused on the process started on October 18, when the social uprising began. Chile – and the world – will not be the same after the crisis. We will have to modify our behaviors; the world of work will be different. Yet, what October 18 set in motion will hardly be reversible, because what’s been happening from that day until February is already the “new normality.”

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