In Latin America and the Caribbean, Chile is the second most affected country by the global COVID-19 pandemic. It has 4,471 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus with 34 deaths. The first case of the COVID-19 was registered on March 3 and in less than two weeks, the country entered the Stage 4 of the coronavirus transmission. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this stage is characterized by viral circulation and community transmission of the disease. This is the worst stage, when the spread is uncontrollable and there are several major clusters of infection all over the country.
On March 16, when the country had 155 confirmed cases but no deaths, President Sebastián Piñera announced that schools would be closed, borders shut down, public gatherings limited and he declared quarantine in affected provinces and cities as well as a national quarantine for senior citizens, considering them as the “only” vulnerable population.
Piñera had also declared a 90-day “state of catastrophe” throughout the national territory which began on March 18. A state of catastrophe allows deployment of armed forces and restricts the freedom of movement of the citizens. Basically, by law, it puts the armed forces in charge of public order and security and enables military control of the movement of people and goods.
The date of application of the state of catastrophe coincided with the five-month anniversary of nationwide mass protests against Piñera’s neoliberal policies. Since October 18, 2019, hundreds of thousands of Chileans have been mobilizing demanding a new inclusive constitution and an end to the neoliberal economic model which has made basic necessities such as education, health, and public services expensive out of reach for the working class.
The majority of Chileans, who have been demanding Piñera’s resignation, rejected the government’s response to fight the pandemic and called it inadequate. Several mayors, from political parties belonging to Pinera’s ruling alliance, also enacted restrictions beyond the national government’s order. The National Doctor’s Association also called for more drastic measures to enforce social distancing and other preventive measures.
The first death from coronavirus disease was reported on March 21 and when the death toll rose to 18 by the end of the month, citizens, social movements, human rights organisations, health associations, trade unions and opposition political parties urged the national government to implement strict social isolation measures. The majority of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been under strict lock-downs for the past several weeks, with the exception of Brazil and Chile.
However, the country’s Health Minister, Jaime Mañalich, on April 2, ruled out imposing total national quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.
“The possibility of having a total quarantine, that is, the whole country being paralyzed for the next four months, is something that nobody is doing in the world. The countries that have tried to do this, I mean Italy, Spain, have failed miserably because a total quarantine means a very serious risk to people’s lives in one respect: that is to ensure that they have their food,” Mañalich told the local media.
Despite the health emergency in the country, the seriousness of a highly contagious disease and the WHO’s recommendations to practice social isolation, Mañalich refused to declare a full quarantine and asked the citizens to keep calm.
In the midst of such an alarming situation, the national government’s decision has been denounced by social movements as it is prioritizing the economy over people’s lives.
Additionally, the health-care workers’ unions have criticized the shortage of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves, eye goggles, medical clothing, sanitizers, etc. for doctors and nurses in the hospitals.
Neoliberalism in times of COVID-19
Even in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government continues with its neoliberal policies. While the governments across the world have been enacting public health and economic measures to safeguard the most vulnerable populations, the far-right government of Chile has decreed measures that favor corporations and go against working people.
On March 26, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, issued a statement on how the employers and workers should operate in case of a quarantine. The ministry said that in the case of a force majeure, “the parties are exonerated from the reciprocal obligations imposed on them by the contract.” Explaining this further, the ministry added that in such circumstances, the employers would not have the obligation to offer any work or to pay any wage to their workers. Likewise, the workers would not be obliged to fulfill their duties.
Manuel Ahumada Lillo, president of the Central Clasista de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores and the secretary of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), condemned this anti-worker decision of the government.
“A law was finally approved that for a certain time (not more than 12 months in its longest period) allows the suspension of employment and non-payment of wages, as well as the reduction of the daily work day, with the consequent decrease in remuneration. (…) Certainly, the law has a certain time, but the door is left open for future times, in which new pandemics or catastrophes may be unleashed and there will already be a tool that legalises a daily and permanent practice of capital,” said Ahumada in a statement and called on the workers to fight against it.
In addition, there are thousands of people across the country, who continue to suffer extreme poverty and homelessness, and the national government has not taken any measure to ensure the safety of these sections of the society.
With the sharp increase in the number of cases, implementation of selective quarantine and continuation of anti-workers policies, the Chilean government has surely failed its people.