On 18 October 2019, Chile felt the first tremors of a social crisis that would rock the country over the coming months. Although those in power refer to the uprising only in terms of disorder and violence, a study published by the authors in March 2020 (available in Spanish here) found that the events kindled hope for a better future among people the length of the nation. However, conversations with the same individuals several months into the COVID-19 pandemic reveal that this hope is now waning. The less well-off have found themselves once again in a position of “few prospects, torn between religious optimism that God will provide and fear that things will only get worse.” The term el pueblo (“the people”), used to evoke the nation’s shared identity during the uprising, has once again fallen out of regular usage, and the authors noted acute concern among middle-strata people of losing their social status, expressed, for example, in fear of having to choose less expensive or even free education for their children.
In this article, we explore the emotions and attitudes of Chilean people during the COVID-19 crisis, focusing on the changes that have occurred since the uprising that began on 18 October 2019, known to Chileans as 18/O. Many were quick to associate the outbreak of violence with a sudden 30-peso increase in Santiago’s metro fare, although in reality, the price hike was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The phrase “it’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years” was echoed nationwide as Chileans vented their resentment towards the economic model implemented under the Pinochet dictatorship and the stark inequality that it has generated. Iron-hard convictions and intense emotions were much in evidence during street protests that swept the country, heedless of violent repression by the authorities. We were interested in finding out whether people’s feelings and opinions expressed in the wake of 18/O have been redefined, replaced or in any way diminished by the pandemic.
Although many explanations of the causes and consequences of 18/O take into account the rational or strategic motivations of social and political actors, emotions are of particular relevance to social crises (Elster, 2010). Our aim was therefore to explore the effect of the pandemic on Chilean society in light of the rapid series of changes, crises and associated emotions experienced by the nation since 2019.
This work is part of a larger sociological research project involving focus groups held in the weeks running up to 18/O, during the uprising, and on into the pandemic. In May and June 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 emergency, we arranged online meetings via the Zoom platform, bringing together the same groups of people with whom we had met previously. This enabled us to capture the evolution of their situations, attitudes and emotions, and to link their personal experiences with the complex circumstances through which Chilean society has been living.
The dilemma posed by the need to subsist financially at the cost of potentially infecting the family was one of the greatest causes of anxiety and guilt reported by participants
The groups consisted of men and women from the upper, middle and lower social strata from the Chilean capital, Santiago, and the southern port city of Puerto Montt. Conversations were supported by a set of cards or vignettes displaying information about real people of different ages from across Chilean society, including a housekeeper, a taxi driver, and a highly affluent investor. The methodology encouraged participants to reflect upon how the characters depicted would have been affected by the COVID-19 situation and to express personal opinions about this complex scenario.
Fear and uncertainty
In the words of one focus group participant, a nursery teacher, the pandemic has created an atmosphere in which “everyone is uncertain; we are all scared,” and the emotion mentioned most frequently during conversations was fear.
The fear experienced during the pandemic is different to that felt during the uprising. The events of 18/O provoked initial alarm at the violence of arson attacks and looting, and in the weeks that followed, participants also expressed fear of repression by the authorities, although this was countered by the enormous scale of public demonstrations and the positive feeling that change was finally on the horizon. Above all, as reported in an article published by CIPER Académico during the uprising, we learned from our participants that the anger expressed by young people helped older members of the population to overcome their trepidation and join in the protest. However, the majority of focus group participants agreed that fear later returned with the arrival of COVID-19.
The intensity of fear experienced by people from each of the various social strata during the uprising was turned on its head by the pandemic. During 18/O, the majority of focus group participants were of the opinion that the investor depicted in one of the vignettes would have been feeling nervous, with some even suggesting that the intensity of the protests would have driven him to consider leaving the country. In the midst of the pandemic, however, participants proposed that the investor’s considerable financial resources left him better protected from the threat of the virus, while those less well-off were more vulnerable.
During the uprising, focus group participants supported many of the different demands being made at the time. A few months later, during the pandemic, people’s concerns also covered multiple issues, although sentiments were more negative. People were naturally concerned about catching the virus, but they were also worried about losing their jobs, incomes and status. Less well-off workers were the most affected, faced with the sudden worry of taking home enough cash to “pay for food and family upkeep.”
People found themselves weighing up the need to go out to work against their fear of leaving the house, and previously routine behaviour became a daily conundrum. Upon analysing the vignette depicting the taxi driver, a man heavily exposed to infection from his passengers, a seasonal worker from Puerto Montt stated: “I get home worried that I might be bringing the virus with me.” The dilemma posed by the need to subsist financially at the cost of potentially infecting the family was one of the greatest causes of anxiety and guilt reported by participants.
The threat posed by the virus caused a general lack of certainty even regarding the immediate future, which was in stark contrast to the long-term projections observed in the weeks following 18/O
Finally, uncertainty during the pandemic had a considerable impact on people’s outlook. While the protests had kindled collective hope of a better future for many, these were no longer a feature of focus group conversations held during the pandemic. The threat posed by the virus caused a general lack of certainty even regarding the immediate future and the constant struggle from one day to the next. This was in stark contrast to the long-term projections observed in the weeks following 18/O.
The pandemic eroded people’s expectations and damaged their outlook, particularly in terms of the notion that had over the course of recent decades become ingrained: that the future promised a better situation for them and for their children. Amid the overall feeling of catastrophe, lower-income focus group participants felt that they were once again faced with a gloomy future, finding themselves torn between religious optimism that God will provide and fear that things will only get worse.
Providing a middle-strata perspective of the present and the future, an architect from Puerto Montt used the metaphor of the wheel of time coming to rest: “When the coronavirus hit, the wheel stopped turning and everything ground to a halt, but the problem is that, in reality, the system keeps turning and it’s just you who stops. Commitments can no longer be fulfilled, debts can no longer be paid off, and you begin to have a very hard time of it knowing the enormous risk that you’ll lose everything that you’ve worked so hard to build. This causes huge anxiety.”
Focus group participants repeatedly expressed fears of losing their jobs and facing unemployment during the pandemic given the reduced likelihood of finding work. Several people had already lost their jobs by the time the focus groups were held. Most of these were women, the first to be made redundant or to return home in order to look after children and others ignored by Chile’s unequal care system. One participant, a former secretary at a company in Puerto Montt now living alone and on unemployment benefit, decided not to go out in what she saw as a fruitless search for work. A number of other participants reported being in a similar position.
The term “self-reinvention” cropped up in many of the focus group conversations, reflecting a degree of optimism and hope in the face of employment uncertainty. Participants spoke of surviving by finding alternative and innovative sources of income: one electrician began to offer carpentry services, an unemployed woman suggested selling “bread or something that can be done from home”, a taxi driver began to do deliveries to supplement falling passenger numbers, and one housewife whose husband had lost his job decided to make face masks and run the risk of exposure in order to sell her products across the city.
We were able to identify two primary meanings of the notion of “self-reinvention”, one relating to living in the present during the pandemic, and the other to perceptions of the future. In the latter, longer period, “self-reinvention” was seen as “starting from scratch” at the risk of losing some or all of one’s pre-crisis economic status. Those less well-off saw a future lack of the bare necessities as a “dark, sad and distressing” prospect.
They found themselves “losing hope from time to time” at the unlikelihood of being granted a once easily obtainable consumer loan or of receiving any help from the State, which the groups described as almost non-existent. For those who in recent years had succeeded in breaking into the middle strata of Chilean society, the prospect of having to accept a reduction in income was a sad one that meant “going back to being poor.”
As another architect from Puerto Montt put it: “We’ll be left with nothing! We’re going to end up really poor... It’s going to be terrible.” Other middle-strata participants also expressed intense fear at the possibility of having to send their children to less expensive or even free schools. As the quality of public education in Chile is low and the achievement gap between state-run and private schools is significant, for some focus group participants, the thought of having to make this decision aroused intense anxiety at the associated loss of status.
The idea that dominated in focus groups during the pandemic was that “everyone” was faced with the same threat of falling ill
For others, belief in the power of self-reinvention sparked restrained optimism at the possibility of being able to carry on during the emergency, while some found themselves mired in despair. This contrasts with feelings of collective hope reported during the unrest of 18/O and, above all, the confidence that “if we manage to achieve anything, I’ll benefit too.” This collective hope marked a departure from pre-uprising “normality” when attitudes had focused on individual merit, albeit accompanied by criticism of the so-called meritocracy. What effect, then, do these new feelings in relation to self-reinvention – transitory as they may be – have on people’s more enduring motivation to strive against inequality and towards the common good?
Collective identity during the pandemic
During the uprising, the term el pueblo was used extensively by focus group participants, particularly those from the lower to middle strata, in reference to a shared identity. This was in contrast to the first set of meetings held during the period prior to 18/O, when there was no evidence of any homogeneous naming convention. What happened to this identity during the pandemic? Its longevity could be connected with the meaning attributed by Butler (2017) to the expression nosotros el pueblo (“we the people”), which seeks to evoke the existence of a plural social group and to convey the value of equality in a context characterised by a complete lack thereof.
One participant, a 25-year-old supermarket shelf stacker from the district of Quilicura in northern Santiago, took part in all three of our focus group sessions. During the meeting held a week before the uprising she spoke of “where we come from; Plaza Italia and below” as a defining aspect of her identity. Her reference to Plaza Italia, an iconic open space on the border between affluent Providencia and bustling downtown Santiago and the traditional epicentre of demonstrations and other protest activity, evokes the long-established socio-economic segregation between Santiago’s wealthy eastern districts and the rest of the city.
When the group met again a month after 18/O, she spoke of “those who live up there” in reference to the other half of the social dichotomy. In regard to those “below Plaza Italia,” she expressed belonging to “the same pueblo to which we all belong, all of us are humble.” Here she makes clear reference to a “we”, to a sense of belonging to a broad collective which had not been apparent prior to the uprising. A few months later, in the midst of the pandemic, as she compared the vignette of the investor with two others, the housekeeper and the taxi driver, she states: “These two are more a part of el pueblo, more self-sacrificing, shall we say... but he [the investor] has more options... because money helps a lot, of course.”
Her view of the investor as occupying a position of financial advantage in which to endure the COVID-19 emergency illustrates her continued focus on his remoteness from el pueblo, an identity applied to and shared by those of limited means. In short, her perception of the identity of el pueblo remained the same across the three focus group sessions, and it grew in strength following 18/O, despite the changing circumstances.
However, unlike the shelf stacker, the other focus group participants referred repeatedly to el pueblo during the uprising but ceased to do so as the pandemic took hold. This can be explained by the fact that the expression has emotional connotations and refers to a notion of social value that goes beyond a mere socio-economic category. The fact that the term el pueblo fell out of use during the pandemic serves to illustrate the reduction in intensity of associated emotions that occurred between the uprising and the pandemic, and how motivation to contribute to collective action dropped off.
By contrast, the idea that dominated in focus groups during the pandemic was that “everyone” was faced with the same threat of falling ill, regardless of social status, pointing to the notion of equality at the human level. Despite this, however, the lower-strata participants in particular emphasised that although the level of risk of infection was the same for “everyone” including the investor, the latter was in an incomparable situation. “If he falls ill, he’ll go to a private clinic and they’ll treat him quickly,” pointed out a housewife from San Ramón in southern Santiago.
Another member of the group added that a less well-off person would have no option but to seek treatment within the “already overstretched” public health system. Other lower-strata participants asserted that the investor’s financial resources would enable him to remain at home, that he would not need to travel for work, that his isolation would be more “comfortable,” and that he would enjoy the opportunity to “spend more time with his family.”
The sense of belonging to a collective is far removed from the “save yourself if you can” mentality that had prevailed prior to the uprising among a people who felt themselves to be at the mercy of what is commonly viewed as a neoliberal society
In reference to this position of financial security, a cleaner from Puerto Montt concluded: “What’s he got to worry about?” Some even suspected that “he’s taking advantage” of the situation to serve his own selfish economic interests at the cost of everyone else affected, putting business plans into motion in order to cash in on the pandemic. In this sense, although “everyone” is faced with the threat of the virus, the investor included, the latter was considered to be in a position of privilege in other regards. Thus, the meaning of the term el pueblo remained the same as during the uprising in that it excluded this character, especially from the point of view of low-income focus group participants who maintained the existence of differentiated and opposing identities even with the universal threat posed by the pandemic.
The practical feeling of belonging to a collective
Despite the distinctions that formed the basis of a perceived distance between social sectors, members of our focus groups reported the emergence of many and diverse instances of social action during the pandemic, which may be seen to lend practical rather than political weight to the notion of a shared identity. These included bartering and trade networks between neighbours, provision of food to those most in need, and neighbourhood surveillance and security initiatives launched in response to fears of increased crime. Overall, participants reported practices involving a sense of local community that was much more intense not only than in times of “normality” but even than during the events of 18/O, despite widespread fear of associated criminality.
To this was added collective awareness of the need to take care during the pandemic, including the notion of shared responsibility. Participants from the city of Puerto Montt indicated that before getting into a shared taxi, residents would take the precaution of donning a face mask, wearing gloves, and washing their hands. However, “not everyone is that careful,” complained a housewife from the city, and her sentiments were echoed by other participants who took a dim view of non-conformance with hygiene standards.
According to our participants, the general atmosphere of cooperation constituted an unprecedented and immediate response to issues of health and subsistence, and although such actions will doubtless evaporate along with the pandemic, it is to be hoped that the pragmatic rather than political nature of that social connection may endure. Such a real and practical sense of belonging to a collective is far removed from the “save yourself if you can” mentality that had prevailed prior to the uprising among a people who felt themselves to be at the mercy of what is commonly viewed as a neoliberal society.
This work was supported by the Chilean National Research and Development Agency (ANID) through FONDECYT Regular Project 1190436 (National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development) and CONICYT / FONDAP Project 15130009 (National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research / Fund for Research Centres of Excellence in Priority Areas).
Notes and references
Butler, Judith (2017). Cuerpos aliados y lucha política. Hacia una teoría performativa de la asamblea. Barcelona: Paidós.
Elster, Jon (2010). Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press.
Luna, Juan Pablo (2020). Anomia ABC1. CIPER Académico 30.06.2020
Mac-Clure, Oscar; Barozet, Emmanuelle; Conejeros, José & Jordana, Claudia (2020). Escuchando a los chilenos en medio del estallido: Liberación emocional, reflexividad y el regreso de la palabra “pueblo”. CIPER Académico 02.03.2020
This article was originally published in Spanish by CIPER Académico and republished with permission. Read the original here.