Chile: The virus is also the model

With privatized health care and a right-wing government, Chile is struggling with the coronavirus epidemic. The government is afraid to take measures of total isolation because of fears of looting and protests following the demonstrations that began in 2019. Despite not yet being in a total quarantine, citizens are taking care of one another as best they can. They are confronting the virus and model of privatisation through citizens organisation and care. Español

Barbara Godoy
30 March 2020, 12.01am
A Chilean flag can be seen on a balcony next to a sign demanding the quarantine in Chile.
Claudio Santisteban/Zuma Press/PA Images. All Rights Reserved

2019 was a year characterized by social explosion. In the 30 years since the return to democracy, the country has never faced a crisis like last October. Chilean society questioned the political system and, for the first time in many years, citizens organized themselves and demanded an end to years of the government ignoring education, health and pensions and a new constitution.

At the beginning of October 2019 massive demonstrations - both peaceful and violent – took place. looting and the burning of emblematic buildings led President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency and to delegate the protection of public order to the Armed Forces, reviving the ghosts of the dictatorship and, therefore, leading to an intensification of the demonstrations.

March 2020 came, and people took to the streets again, amidst heavy repression. This was the context when the global coronavirus crisis emerged. Piñera's government was no longer just facing an internal social crisis but a global health crisis as well.

As the virus spread throughout the world and the first cases began to appear in Chile, the health minister decided that the referendum on the new constitution, which was due to happen at the end of April, would risk causing an outbreak of the virus and might result in a low turnout.

What was the minister concerned about? The legitimacy of the process or the increased risk of infection? Initially, delaying the referendum was seen as the perfect excuse for the government to delay this process. This was also thought to be the case when the government a state of emergency and put the military back on the streets.

Chile has had a rapid increase in cases of coronavirus infection, which has meant that the referendum has had to be postponed until October and has led to the declaration of a state of emergency due to a disaster. And for the government, which was already politically weak, this health crisis instead of being an opportunity has turned out to be anything exactly the opposite.

Until the civil unrest, Piñera's government had only response to any challenge: management. And it emphasized this, particularly in crisis situations. In fact, Piñera's first presidency in 2010 began with the management of a huge earthquake. The deployment of "red jackets", which characterised the government's presence in the streets, meant that Piñera was able to present himself as leading an efficient team that acted quickly. Then came the crisis of the 33 miners trapped in the mine. This allowed Piñera to go global with the management and efficiency narrative. But what is actually happening with the government? How is it actually dealing with the crisis? How will it manage this health challenge? What role will it assign to the state?

Piñera has not achieved consensus either within his coalition or with the opposition. No one is up to it: “political cliques” and networks shape responses and the meetings are held at the Palacio de la Moneda with opposition figures are about shaking hands first and then reverting quickly to party logic. There is no unity in the face of the crisis. Piñera is trying to convey to the public that every effort is being made to deal with the virus, but then the health minister, Jaime Mañalich, was speculating that the virus may not be so dangerous after all or whether it might mutate and become benign. Until a few days ago the Minister of Health was concerned about whether the virus would impede holding the referendum; now it is suggesting that the virus could become harmless. Furthermore, differences and discrepancies from within the government coalition are also occurring. There are mayors from Piñera's party who have chosen to take their own measures, first suspending classes and then ordering local quarantines.

But the most dangerous failure of coordination in this crisis is the differences between the government and the Chilean Medical Association over whether to apply the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO. The relaxed statements made by the Minister of Health versus the warnings of the President of the Medical Association are of concern to the public. With more than 600 cases now in Chile and 20 days since the first case of coronavirus, the main health authorities need to overcome “their differences”.

There has been a delay in calling a mandatory national quarantine despite the number of infected people. This is not due to the minimising the impact of the virus, but to an economic logic.

There has been a delay in calling a mandatory national quarantine despite the number of infected people. This is not due to the minimising the impact of the virus, but to an economic logic. The government thinks first about "how much this crisis will cost the country", and the cost of " having the entire population at home instead of at work. That is its underlying logic. The debate therefore contrasts two perspectives: one that privileges the economic model and one that privileges people’s essential rights; one that emphasizes the economy and one that emphasizes public health (when the Chilean right wing talks about the economy it doesn't exactly talk about the livelihoods of the poorest). But the government is also afraid to take measures of total isolation for fear of looting and protests, following the crisis that the country is going through.

Moreover, the health system is regulated by the market and those with the most money have access to the best medical care. The same goes for education or the pension system: these are rights that are linked to the market and the Chilean right wing is comfortable with this. At the moment, when what is at stake is the collapse of the health system, the government is choosing to act slowly, trying to reduce the impact on the economy as much as possible. But government slowness in introducing national quarantine measures is not satisfactory to most people. The vast majority of Chileans know that in an uncontrolled outbreak of coronavirus they do not have the money to protect their health and that they have to take precautions. Those who can, have in fact already gone into voluntary quarantine. Meanwhile, the big companies, those that make the most money, continue to operate. However, cracks are appearing. "We must protect the people and not the economy," a pro-government mayor recently said.

Chileans do not know who is supporting them in this crisis. This lack of coordination intensifies the costs of the privatization model Chile follows and the enormous social fractures that are a result of it. The most prominent voices in the government are sending the wrong messages. It is not only the Minister of Health either. The Minister of Economy, Lucas Palacios, also tried to minimize the crisis, when he criticized the mandatory national quarantine that President Alberto Fernandez set up for Argentina as "hasty".

Chile is the mirror image of Argentina. The role that both governments assign to the State is diametrically opposed. Chile has been living in unusual conditions for months, but Argentina, which has always gone from crisis to crisis and is often described as explosive, is today an exception in the region. The government of Alberto Fernandez, despite the economic context, changed direction when he took office and has directed all the power of the State to deal with this health crisis. And, in doing so, he is delivering his promises: "it is up to everyone" and "we will take care of each other". Argentina, which is experiencing economic crisis and growing impoverishment, is facing up to this crisis with more State support than other countries in the region. Argentines seem to know that the first duty of the State is to protect its citizens and that "the economy", of course, can wait. Nevertheless, quarantines require state support for the most vulnerable, especially when the informal economy is so large.

The debate which began in relation to education has turned now to health. Both education and health are perceived by the government and by the right-wing sectors as market goods. The government's commitment after the protests was to listen to the Chileans and guarantee their rights. Now, reality is hitting home, people’s health is at stake, but the government is looking at "the economy". Progress on concrete measures like compulsory quarantine - which would protect a large majority of workers, especially those working in large companies - is slow. And, it is not even considered entirely feasible by the government.

Chileans have moved from the individual to the collective in order to organize themselves and demand their rights, facing up to a model that conditioned them to think about their lives individually. Today, with this logic already installed, it is citizens themselves who are take precautions in the face of government delay in taking action. They are the ones who try to take care of themselves, but they also know they are unprotected. And they also know that in a few months they will have to go back to issues such as access to health care, which today is privatized. The situation calls for them to once again talk about inequality and redistribution.

The underlying issue that the virus presents for us all, but particularly to countries like Chile, is what is the role of the state. In Chilean politics, the phrase "as much state as necessary, as much market as possible" is the one that is repeated time and again. This is a limbo now, that is putting Chilean lives at stake.

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