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chile: From social protest to sanitary crisis (and back)

April 23, 2020


by Sébastien Velut, Professor in Geography a the Institut des Hautes Etudes de l’Amérique Latine (IHEAL) – Sorbonne Nouvelle


The Chilean Spring of 2019 was not a silent spring.



The protests voiced in Santiago echoed beyond national boundaries. They questioned the basis of the Chilean model, that is to say, a strong economic growth that leaves deep social inequalities untouched, facilitates the exploitation of natural resources to the benefit of a few people and firms, and deteriorates the environment. It’s also a social model in which a large share of the population is torn between the hope of social upwards mobility through education, the promises of consumption and, on the other hand, the burden of private debts and the threat of losing its job of facing health issues. 

Presentation of the group Las Tesis at the University of Stockholm for IHEAL's Laglobe Master (photo taken by Marion Poissonnier)
Presentation of the group Las Tesis at the University of Stockholm for IHEAL's Laglobe Master (photo taken by Marion Poissonnier)

Protests crossed through all of society and demonstrations gathered exceptionally large numbers of people. Social networks made famous the performances of activists, like the radical feminist group Las Tesis, whose interventions bluntly denounce male domination and the patriarch order,  and the actions of MODATIMA, an organization that fights for access to water and a safe environment. Protesters were not only asking for better social distribution, they also wanted to discuss the fundamental principles of social organization. 


Political parties, unable to bring appropriate answers, have rapidly been overwhelmed and marginalized. The center-right president Sebastian Piñera accumulated communication failures, showing himself awkwardly with no sympathy for the Chilean citizens and their needs. The police repressed protesters violently, instead of providing security during the demonstrations. The UN special report, prepared under the supervision of the former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, high-commissioner for Human Rights, carefully pointed out serious problems. The government dismissed it hastily. The year ended with the promise for a referendum on a possible Constitutional reform. 



The arrival of Covid-19 to Chile led to a rearrangement of all priorities. At first, although the epidemic was unavoidable, the Chilean government did not want to take any strong measures. Only overseas travelers were obliged to comply with a two-week quarantine upon arrival to avoid the propagation of the virus. At the beginning of March, when students were supposed to go back to school and everyone back to work after the summer vacation, mayors and rectors of universities decided to cancel classes. As in other Latin American countries (such as Colombia), local authorities were quicker to react than the central government, who then had to struggle to take the lead. 


On March 18th, President Piñera declared the state of disaster for the whole territory. This measure allows the government to directly manage the crisis and use the Army to enforce measures. The Chilean government decided to impose a strict quarantine only in municipalities with a high incidence of the disease. Sanitary customs have been set on major highways and at the entry of major towns, in order to limit the moves of people at risk. A sanitary passport will soon be issued to patients that have recovered from the virus. Housing centers have been rapidly set up in hotels to isolate patients. An economic plan targets firms and a social plan the most vulnerable families. People losing their jobs are directed to unemployment insurance, with no absolute guarantee that they will be hired again after the crisis. Relying on important financial assets, Chile has been able to mobilize assets, like it did after the 2008 crisis. 



Spread of the epidemic in Santiago metropolitan region
Spread of the epidemic in Santiago metropolitan region

Chile is used to disasters, usually coming from natural factors: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. To face them, the State and the Chilean society know how to react: protect people and infrastructure, bring emergency relief and wait for the situation to return to normal. But the current crisis is like no other: it has a sanitary origin and it affects the whole territory. The Chilean State has been able to rapidly enforce control measures, without stopping the propagation of the pandemic. According to official data, 10 000 cases and 126 deaths had been recorded one month after Piñera’s declaration. 


Crisis management raises many questions. On a fundamental level, in spite of the existence of a National plan, the crisis cast a light upon the unequal access to health services, according to place and income. Paying high tariffs, Chilean patients get access to medical services matching the highest world standards. Conversely, public hospitals draw gloomy waiting lists of patients with serious diseases, that should, in principle, receive universal coverage. In the Covid crisis, a special effort has been made to make tests accessible, even for low income patients, but medical staff from public hospitals are reportiing that the means are not sufficient to cope with patients’ needs. Life conditions also aggravate health issues for poor people. Winter is coming. And each winter, pollution and the lack of appropriate heating in dwellings cause respiratory problems in the western part of Santiago among low-income families. It’s in West Santiago that the problems of overweight and obesity are more serious, making the Covid potentially more lethal. The epidemic started in upper-class Santiago, but it will likely make more victims among poor families that combine risk factors. 


Copper price, the main Chilean export, went from 2.85 to 2.09 $ a pound since the beginning of March, leading the Central Bank to forecast a recession in 2020. A long shutdown would make things even worse. President Piñera wants to authorize the reopening of all activities as soon as possible and keep the economy going. Nevertheless, the reopening of schools, offices, restaurants and shops when the pandemic is not yet under control worries many. Economic growth is important, but at what cost in terms of human life and to the benefit of whom?

Protests in Santiago, Chile, December 2019 (photo : S.Velut)
Protests in Santiago, Chile, December 2019 (photo : S.Velut)

In fact, in the mid-terms, what is at stake is the unraveling of  the 2019 political agenda. The constitutional referendum, scheduled for April 2020, has been postponed to November, with the agreement of political parties. Will the government face the polls in a better position due to its reaction to the crisis? For the time being, the management of the crisis has not paralleled with better scores of approval for Sebastian Piñera. In Latin-America, the Chilean state is not the least present, nor the least efficient in enforcing measures, thanks to centralization of power, well-equipped and well-trained security forces and financial capabilities . But, that’s precisely what protesters were fighting against: centralization means authoritarianism and patriarchy; security forces have broken the basic rules of democracy and the economic system fuels inequalities. That's why the Covid-19 crisis, instead of facilitating a return to the established order, might invigorate political protest. 

Sébastien Velut is a Geography Professor at the Institut des Hautes Etudes de l’Amérique Latine (IHEAL) – Sorbonne Nouvelle and Director of the Master Erasmus Mundus Laglobe. He has been a member of the research committee of the Institut des Amériques.