NATIONAL OPINION

The Health Minister’s “Catastrophe” Has Arrived

Chile’s health situation has deteriorated sharply. A successful vaccination campaign could not prevent a rise in infections and deaths. That needs to have consequences for the April elections.

A few weeks ago, in this column I wrote about the paradox of a country that achieved high levels of vaccination but was hit by a brutal second wave. Well, the situation became even more alarming.

Chile is experiencing a health catastrophe. That description is not mine; it’s what Health Minister Enrique Paris said. In early March, I insinuated the figures indicated the April 10 and 11 elections should be rescheduled, while authorities insisted postponement was not necessary. On March 22, Paris said the elections will go ahead “bar a catastrophe.”

Failed Chilean Exceptionalism

In the column some weeks ago, I also laid out the reasons why I am convinced that the government was wrong in the last stage of this difficult fight against Covid-19. It blew the vaccination process – which of course is highly successful as I could see in many public spaces – out of proportion. The vaccination communication strategy was aimed at reinforcing President Sebastián Piñera’s obsession to project Chile as a superior country in the region.

Read the column here

In the Vaccination Campaign, it’s Business Piñera vs. Political Piñera

This account generated a feeling of false security and relaxation among the population, exacerbated by the introduction of vacation travel permits, of which more than four million were granted. In just under two months, Chile went from stellar example to sufferer as 70% of the population is once again in lockdown. Countries like Mexico question the widely circulating Chinese Sinovac vaccine because of the dramatic situation in our country.

Chile has exceeded the peak of cases registered in June 2020 several times, reaching almost 8,000 infections on some days. A 45-year record of deaths was registered during the summer month of February, and most Covid-19 deaths have been registered for March.

What explains this disaster? Of course, the bad decisions, the fatigue and exhaustion of the population. Another problem are the new strains that have developed. Authorities said in January, when the first infections with new variants were detected, that they will include figures for the Brazilian variant in the daily count due to geographical proximity. But this promise was broken.

Where to Go from Here

A few days ago, during a – very confused – senate session, Paris recognized that new strains may have triggered the explosive rise in cases. Paris said vaguely 10 or 12 cases of the British and a few cases of the Brazilian variant had been reported. The next day, health undersecretary Paula Daza confirmed 64 cases of the British B.117 strain and 46 of P.1, believed to originate from Manaus.

The obvious question is why the government has refused to close Santiago’s international airport, especially considering the high passenger flow from Brazil, which is related to the region’s largest airline, LATAM, being financed by Chilean and Brazilian capital. Everybody knows the situation in Brazil is dramatic.

A big worry in the medical and scientific community, and I imagine among the health authorities too, is Sinovac’s effectiveness against the new strains. Given that this vaccine does not circulate in the US or Europe, and no studies on the matter exist, fear is growing that mutations cause the current devastating outbreak – as a sizeable part of the population is already vaccinated.

The government is advocating to postpone the April elections to May 15 and 16. The decision is correct, but late. The move should not have come at the last minute. Although it will surely be approved, it will not be easy.

From the outset, the opposition demanded health and financial support for the public in exchange for approval, which the government described as “blackmail.” It is a fact that such an important election with low turnout would undermine the legitimacy of the new constitution.

And it is a fact that Paris made a big communication error when he pointed out that only a catastrophe would postpone the process. He effectively confirmed the seriousness of the current situation.

Santiago Enters New Lockdown as Options Run Out

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