SANTIAGO – Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has been at the forefront of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Internationally praised for tackling the outbreak, he recently seems to be on a rampage with the press, mayors, ministers, and diplomats. Who is Jaime Mañalich?
Health Minister Jaime Mañalich received international attention during the Covid-19 pandemic after saying he counted those who died from the virus as “recovered” because they could no longer spread the virus. He then retracted the statement and said he had misspoken. This, however, has been a pattern with the minister during the pandemic.
In recent weeks, he has also become embroiled in several spats with other ministers and mayors, including a recent incident in which he publicly questioned the decision of the Minister of Education to close down the schools.
It might be said that more air time and more responsibilities means more pressure and more opportunity for gaffs and disagreements.
Chile Today takes a look at the man himself and one of his most controversial weeks since becoming minister.
Early Life and Career
Born in 1954, Mañalich grew up in the center of Santiago, along with his family who fled the Franco dictatorship in Spain.
In 1972, he entered the University of Chile and graduated as a medical surgeon, specializing in nephrology, becoming the first person in his family to obtain a college degree. He then started his medical career in the university hospital, itself, where he then worked for nearly 15 years.
In 1995, he became the medical director of the Las Condes Clinic, where he met President Sebastián Piñera for the first time, as Piñera was a major shareholder at the clinic at the time.
In 2010, during Piñera’s first term as president, Piñera selected Mañalich to be minister of health, and Mañalich’s performance was not without controversy: among other things, an investigation asserts that the operation wait lists were artificially shortened in the public healthcare system, so that Piñera could trumpet the fruition of one of his campaign promises.
Then, in 2015, after Mañalich left office, the Medical College of Chile (the organization that supervises, regulates, and disciplines the professional practice of medicine) expelled him for a breach of ethics – a sanction that was later revoked.
In July 2019, Mañalich joined Piñera’s cabinet again. It didn’t take long for him to make headlines again: when asked about the eye damage caused by riot police during the social protests of October, he said the cases were few and isolated.
Last week, however, Mañalich took controversy to a new level, having confrontations with ambassadors, ministers, and mayors in one week.
On Mar. 19, the minister of health told La Tercera, “The Chinese Ambassador has donated more than a thousand mechanical ventilators to Chile.” When later questioned about the number, the number dropped to 500.
During a recent interview with La Tercera, China’s ambassador said, “I am unaware of the [Chinese] government’s commitment to donate ventilators to Chile.” He added, “Recently, the Ministry of Health has told me they wish to buy ventilators from China. I told the Chinese government about this, and they said that they will give the maximum support they can. I also recognize that China has a limited supply of ventilators.”
When asked for comment, Mañalich assured the press that before his interview, the ambassador had contacted him through WhatsApp, and Mañalich had told him to omit the facts related to the ventilators. That way they can protect themselves from the current international bidding war that is taking place over the ventilators.
The Minister followed up by saying, “That is the job of the press, sell things based on lies.” This was followed by the health sub-secretary, Paula Daza, contradicting the minister by saying that they were obtaining ventilators from China, but they were not doing it through the embassy.
Lastly, on Apr. 21, the minister and the ambassador met during a ceremony where they received a shipment from China that brought over 11,000 items for personal protection. Together they assured that they had now come to an agreement to ship 500 ventilators from China to Chile.
On the same day that he met with the Chinese ambassador, Mañalich met virtually with Congress. During the meeting he said, “It was a mistake to close down the schools due to the pandemic.” He said that taking students out of school meant that many of them no longer have access to the influenza vaccine or to school lunches. He also said that children in rural areas and other places nowhere near active cases should return to classes.
In response, Minister of Interior Gonzalo Blumel said that canceling classes was a step in the right direction, while Karla Rubilar, the government spokesperson, said “It wasn’t a mistake … President Piñera determined that it was time to suspend classes.”
The Minister of Education, Raúl Figueroa, also defended the decision, saying “In times of crisis it is complex to take decisions and when the government makes one, it does so by looking at all the possibilities and by listening to the experts.”
The president of the Teacher’s union, Mario Aguilar, was less diplomatic: “If you are attempting to make us return to classes, I will tell you that we will not return nor will parents return their kids while our health isn’t guaranteed.”
Mayors and Vaccines
Mañalich’s latest scandal is directly related to the previous one. After he said that children would miss their influenza vaccines due to the cancellation of classes, several mayors posted a Ministry of Health letter that announced a rescheduling of the vaccines, moving them from March to April.
Puente Alto Mayor Germán Codina and Recoleta Mayor Daniel Jadue, for example, both took to Twitter to underscore the portion of the letter that stated that due to a lack of vaccines, the immunizations would take place in April when they receive more vaccines.
Cerro Navia Mayor Mauro Tamayo added that the reason they could not vaccinate the children was because the Ministry was prioritizing vaccines for the police officers and soldiers.
International Praise and Death Threats
One positive aspect of the pandemic is that Chile is being highlighted in the international press for its positive handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in praise for Mañalich, even though some of his ideas, like the immunity passports, have been criticized. Bloomberg commented on the Chilean battle plan for Covid-19 and said that it is unusual but works.
Nevertheless, Mañalich has recently received numerous death threats, and, as a result, his house is under 24-hour surveillance by the police, and he is escorted by two plainclothes police officers.