From mass protests to the SARS-CoV2 crisis: the public health crisis is worsening the social crisis in Chile


The October uprising has paved the way for new constitution in Chile. However, the virus has forced citizens’ organisations into quarantine and is delaying constitutional change. What happens next?

Bild von den Protesten in Chile

The 15 million or so Chilean citizens who are entitled to vote were supposed to turn out for a referendum on 26 April 2020 to state whether they want a new constitution and how the future constituent assembly should be comprised. The momentum of the social mobilisation of 18 October last year had paved the way for a structural change that had been blocked by the Establishment for decades. In the second half of March, however, this process came to an abrupt halt. Coronavirus had reached Chile.

The first case was reported on 3 March; by the last week of May, there are already more than 70,000 patients (out of a population of around 19 million) and there have been more than 700 deaths. Infection rates have not yet reached their peak and the fragmented health system is under severe strain. As early as 24 March, the Chilean Congress decided to postpone the constitutional referendum until 25 October. Civil society organisations, including the well-known “Primera Línea”, which had been clashing on the streets for months with police forces armed to the teeth, decided on an orderly retreat and went voluntarily into quarantine, long before the government ordered such measures. The legendary Plaza de la Dignidad, the ground zero of the uprising in Santiago, was abandoned.

Grotesque border demarcations: the quarantine policy of the Piñera government

The Piñera government, under the leadership of the health minister, Jaime Mañalich, reacted to the pandemic late in the day and with somewhat eccentric measures: partial lockdown in the capital city, with no transparency in the selection criteria, immunity passes for recovered patients, contrary to the warnings of the World Health Organisation, a plan for a safe return to schools and work, with which the expert committee did not agree, false information on alleged donations of ventilators from China and unreliable figures on the number and quality of the tests were the main points of criticism. While representatives of the medical profession, scientists and concerned citizens were calling for stricter quarantine measures and social distancing rules, the government pursued a policy of business as usual for a long time.

In an interview as recently as 20 March, the health minister expressed the hope that the virus might mutate and turn into a “better person” (sic!). The social networks quickly filled up with caricatures and the well-known political satirist Stefan Kramer devoted a parody, entitled “The World’s Best Quarantine”, to the Minister’s contradictory and absurd statements, which has been shared thousands of times. The title was a play on the minister’s claims that Chile has the “world’s best healthcare system”. After the need to suspend schooling was initially called into question, the schools finally closed for the month of April. It was not until 25 March, three weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic, that “dynamic”, i.e. partial quarantine was ordered in the capital city Santiago.

Partial restrictions on movement rather than lockdown 

Contrary to the advice of the expert committee, which had called for a full lockdown, the government stubbornly decided on partial restrictions, initially only for seven districts of the city mainly inhabited by the middle and upper classes. At the same time, the President declared a state of emergency for 90 days and ordered a nightly curfew. The military, which had been discredited during the uprising in October due to its many human rights violations, once again patrolled the streets of Santiago by night, to enforce compliance with the curfew measures. Both chambers of the Parliament, however, continued to function as previously, only with most members working from home. The unexpected quarantine measures and the short notice with which they were announced caused mass runs on supermarkets and registration offices, as people went panic-buying and to register for an Internet password that would now be needed to apply online for the police permit required to go out to buy essentials.

The government had not anticipated that some citizens would not bother to register for the online procedure or would be unable to do so for technical reasons. Even in the week before quarantine, reduced opening times for the underground and buses in the capital city led to gatherings of commuters and a flu vaccination programme to long queues outside health centres. The development of the quarantine orders in other parts of the country also created similar levels of chaos. On 9 April, quarantine was lifted in some parts of Santiago, decreed in others and some districts were divided into two zones. It even led to violent clashes between street traders, who now had to compete for space for their portable stands in the sanitary “border area”. What data or considerations this bizarre demarcation scheme was based on is still unknown, as the government has never revealed its selection criteria.

Lack of transparency, misinformation and fake news: the disastrous legacy of the Chilean government’s communication policy 

International experts all agree that transparency in the communication of data and communication policy overall are central to success in the fight against the pandemic. Even compared to other countries in the region, Chile stands out for having done the exact opposite. The ministry of science and many research institutes have complained that they do not have access to the data they need for the scientific accompaniment of the development of SARS-CoV-2 in Chile. Experts have concerns over the reliability of the data published on a daily basis, as the ministry of health has made several embarrassing mistakes. There is also doubt as to whether the comparatively high numbers of infections in Chile could be explained by the apparently higher number of tests. The Chilean government has certainly made every effort to increase its diagnostic capacity. The number of laboratories offering testing has risen from two to 50 and a million tests have been procured.

Faulty tests, segregated health system and fake news about China 

The quality of these tests, however, has been called into question by the Chilean Society of Infectious Diseases, as they are believed to give some false negative results. The positive verdict on the efficiency of the hugely fragmented healthcare system, consisting of a well-equipped private sector and a chronically under-funded public sector, has also come in for criticism. There are only 2.2 hospital beds available for every thousand inhabitants.
The bottleneck in ventilators is a particular cause for concern. On 19 April, scandal broke. The Chilean minister for health had originally declared that China had donated 1000 desperately needed ventilators. After the Chinese ambassador told an interview with a newspaper that he had no information about any such gift, Mañalich was forced to admit that it was the Chilean chamber of trade and industry that had promised the ventilators, not China. Whether the ventilators will arrive in time and in sufficient numbers is currently anybody’s guess. In the meantime, mathematicians of the Catholic University of Chile have warned that the healthcare system will collapse in early June if current trends in infection rates continue. This was about a month ago. Meanwhile, the government has changed its attitude and imposed a total lock-down of Santiago on 15 May. Too late, according to experts; daily infection rates reached more than 4,000 and even before the peak was reached, more than 90 percent of hospital beds are already occupied. 

The public health crisis is worsening the political crisis: a dangerous combination 

Chile’s President Piñera, whose approval rating fell to a record low of 6% after the October uprising, sees the pandemic as an opportunity to claw back some legitimacy and delay the urgent political and societal structural changes. The government’s standing in opinion polls is currently rising moderately. Piñera succeeded in depicting the voluntary retreat of the protest movement into quarantine and out of public life as a success story of what he is claiming as a strict regulatory policy. He has had some success with this discourse, at least among the right-wing sectors whose support he lost because of his apparent preparedness to compromise during the uprising. He was, however, unable to convince the vast majority of the population. With the exception of three-month emergency assistance, the economic support packages offered by the government are principally benefiting big businesses, while the social aid packages are doing very little to resolve the central concerns of the majority of the population – unemployment and debt. While the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean asked for a basic emergency income in order to provide the conditions for low-income sectors of the society to survive during quarantine, the Chilean government opted for meagre money transfers and food parcels for the most needy. The government has been widely criticised for the lack of criteria in defining target groups and the delay in delivery of food aid. In some of the poorer parts of Santiago, discontent has been taken to the streets, despite the lock-down measures. 

Although the coronavirus may have forced the resistance movement into quarantine, it is not to be underestimated that the health crisis will worsen the root causes of the conflict, which led to mass protests in October of last year. Insufficient access to education and health care is made worse in the times of the pandemic. The digital divide means that only pupils from better-off families can continue their studies in digital formats. Coronavirus patients’ chances of survival depend largely on whether they have insurance in the public or the private health system. More than a third of the Chilean workforce are living precariously, have no contract of employment and, with unemployment on the rise, are falling through all social safety nets.

Debt boom and pensions crisis 

Most Chileans, up to and including many of the middle classes, are already greatly in debt and household borrowings continue to increase. The solely capital-funded pensions system has lost US$15 billion in the last few weeks alone, due to the stock market crash. This increases the risk of old-age poverty. More than 1 million people in Chile have no access to drinking water and are unable to comply with basic hygiene rules. Additionally, there has been a worrying increase of violence against women under quarantine conditions, in a society punctuated by patriarchal violence even during normal times.
On top of all of this is the fact that the Establishment continues to have an extraordinary lack of understanding of the concerns of the majority of the population and is disobeying quarantine rules in a most frivolous way: many company bosses, for instance, are chartering helicopters to spend weekends at their second homes by the sea. Domestic workers, mostly women, were given the choice of being separated from their own families in order to stay in their employers’ households or being threatened with dismissal.

The right-wing hopes to topple the constitutional process 

The current political opportunism is not restricted to attempts to exploit the crisis for better poll ratings. It is particularly worrying that voices within the government and business are now hoping to permanently shelve the referendum which has already been postponed until October. On 19 April, the right-wing populist representative of the Republican Party, José Antonio Kast, announced that the money earmarked for the constitutional process would be better spent on fighting the virus – an undeniably dangerous suggestion and certainly the wrong signal to send out. If the constitutional process is indeed abandoned, this could lead to a radicalisation of the protest movement, as soon as it returns the streets from the restrictions of quarantine.

The article was first published in German. Translation by Alison Frankland.