Coronavirus in Chile OPINION

The One Hundred and One Nights of Minister Mañalich

This past March 3, the government promised us tranquility because it had been preparing for the arrival of coronavirus for months. Soon, however, it emerged that something was amiss. And today, nothing remains of that initial commitment.

An early indicator appeared at end-March around the day pension payments were due and the elderly queued up in long lines, facilitating the spread of the virus. Other examples include President Sebastián Piñera saying in mid-April that the peak would come at the end of that month and normality would return soon; that it was time for public employees to return to the office; that students should return to school; and citizens could meet for coffee with friends, among other ‘memorable’ phrases. Better not remember the president bragging he received calls from all over the world to congratulate him on his crisis management, including from Donald Trump. Some things are best forgotten.

At the beginning of the health crisis, experts kept insisting that quarantines make sense when pandemics arise. That’s when cases can be traced, contained and circumscribed. They also insisted quarantines should be narrowed down to cities and not sectors of a city. Sectoral quarantines were a true failure and added to the defeat in the “Battle for Santiago,” as some officials called it. What we are suffering today is a consequence of these partial quarantines.

The main – and well-known – reason is that, on one hand, when the coronavirus reached the most crowded areas of the country, it grew almost exponentially. And as another matter of fact, decreeing quarantines when the virus is already spreading won’t mitigate the damage, but boost infections. Secluding an already infected community facilitates overcontamination. If we add that confinement is impossible for many, because they must generate income outside their homes, the scenario is even bleaker. Fortunately, the latter problem should be partially remedied with the recently approved emergency family income.

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The government should have decreed preventive rather than curative quarantines. Decreeing the latter in the capital, with its density, diverse population and social inequality, only confirmed that the measures came obviously late.

Aside from prevention, authorities should have prepared the population for the arrival of Covid-19 communicationally and logistically, explain the reasons for quarantines, well-founded prevention measures and ask for collaboration, reducing risky behaviors through clear messaging. Only after that comes a hospital strategy and the ventilators.

Unfortunately, the government did the opposite. It started with a hospital strategy and then moved to measures applying to wider society. Now, with the coronavirus having spread throughout the population, the quarantine has only minimal effect but brings incalculable economic consequences.

More than 100 days have passed since March 3 and instead of advancing on the initial success, we have regressed in optimism and encouragement. The questions are no longer clearly answered by the authority and the scenario has become dark and sad.

The arrival of Dr. Enrique Paris to the helm of the Health Ministry is clearly good news, inducing fresh air in the worn-out image Mañalich projected. Paris should help rebuild trust, open the door to more transparent, horizontal, people-focused and empathetic communications. Paris has the necessary qualities and made clear in his first press conference as minister: “I want to call for dialogue and cooperation, to get the best of Chile out of that dialogue.”

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