Former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has returned fully recharged. Mañalich has reappeared with some observations about the current outbreak and the elections that were scheduled for April. He broke rules on his return, the reason of which remains unclear.
Once under fire from friend and foe alike, former Health Minister Jaime Mañalich has returned to the stage. During the last few weeks, he presented himself as something like a top health authority.
He first sounded the alarm about a brutal coronavirus outbreak we’d be going to experience, and which we suffer now. Long before the constitutional elections slated for April 10 and 11 were scrapped, Mañalich said they could not take place. He advocated closing the airport, warned a third vaccine dose could be necessary, and recently hit President Sebastián Piñera when he said on CNN Chile Piñera was “wrong” by announcing the country would reach herd immunity in June. “Hopefully we will achieve immunity, and that’s not before [austral] spring.”
Mañalich spoke with authority and security while Health Minister Enrique Paris seemed to live a parallel reality. Himself a medical doctor, Paris insisted Chile pursued the most successful vaccination process globally. He said we were leading the continent and would finally see “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
But when numbers began to explode in mid-March – proportionally to inoculations – the press insistently asked Paris if the constitutional convention elections should be suspended. The minister just replied, “that I am going to tell the president in private,” even though only a few weeks were left until the important elections.
And then the expected happened. At the last minute, the government had to ask Congress to postpone the elections. The urgency the bill required allowed the opposition to get its act together and extract concessions in return for approval. Paris could not lead when authority was required to define a clear timeline and guide the population. Actually, Paris has arrived late to all discussions, throwing away all his achievements, even overshadowing the so far successful vaccination program.
Just Shards to Collect
Paris’ strategy collapsed in just under a month like a house of cards. Gone was also an excited president who congratulated himself for having turned Chile into the vaccination star, receiving vaccine shipments at the airport as if they were heads of state. Without doubt, and highlighted by international media like the New York Times, The Economist or the Washington Post, Chile bet everything on the vaccination process. That is why Piñera kept the airport open, launched a special vacation permit, relaxed mobility restrictions, and became obsessed with getting students back into school.
But the threat from the emerging mutations was minimized and eyes closed to events elsewhere. No doubt, such overconfidence backfired, also dragging down Paris.
This started when the government spun a narrative of the virus being under control in January. I think the president played the highest stakes with his strategy. The objective was obvious: to show control and create trust that his leadership can guide the population. But that, and the vacation permit which 4.7 million Chileans used to travel cross-country, led the population to lower the guard, especially as pandemic fatigue set in. Also, restrictions of some sort or other have been in place since the social outbreak in October 2019.
Mañalich Returns, but Why?
Chile is going through a critical phase, much more dramatic than the first wave. It is the moment when the population has the greatest need for trust. Undoubtedly, Paris is not the person to provide such trust. Paradoxically, his predecessor Mañalich has made good use of the resulting vacuum. He could also exploit the lower public profile of the astute head of the Medical College, Izkia Siches, after her comment on a low-reach podcast that the government was run by “unhappy people” was inflated by major media.
Mañalich pushed a campaign of tougher restrictions, and eventually Paris reacted and imposed lockdowns, albeit too late. But the measures were also ambiguous as some were reversed quickly under pressure from the Catholic Church and organized business, for example.
I have no idea which political objective Mañalich is pursuing with this return. Some speculate he wants to run for senator in November. But whatever his goal, he is already overshadowing his successor. Crucially, he’s also cornering his former boss by breaking former cabinet members’ basic rule of never criticizing the president they served.
While the government is experiencing one of its worst moments since the pandemic began – Paris’ and Piñera’s ratings are tanking – Gao Fu, the chief of China’s disease control authority, struck another blow. He recently said the SinoVac vaccine is not “highly reliable” – as 93% of inoculations in Chile have been done with SinoVac.
Mañalich surely will jump on the opportunity.
Germán Silva Cuadra is an expert in corporate communications and a regular commentator on Chilean politics. His latest book is ‘No te reconozco Chile. Cómo entender al país que noqueó a la elite.’ Germán tweets under @gsilvacuadra.