Chile and the Pandemic

Oprime aqui para leer el articulo en Español.


By Lucía Dammert

My experience as a  Custer Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies was outstanding. It was a joy to attend interesting debates about the future, to have access to one of the best libraries in the world, to breathe once again the intellectual vibrancy of a university, to hear Berklee School of Music students perform on several occasions—a real luxury. And I also got to know a group of excellent people and excellent scholars who had obtained fellowships for a semester of research at DRCLAS. Verónica Figueroa Huencho and Mauricio Duce, both from Chile; Luz Horne from Argentina, Beatriz Jaguaribe from Brasil and Juana García Duque from Colombia ended up being part of an adventure we never could have imagined. I had the privilege to be accompanied by my daughter, Camila Bertranou, who, finishing up her university studies, took the opportunity of coming to Cambridge for her personal and professional development. 

When I arrived in Cambridge, the coronavirus was a distant disease— like so many other past epidemics, it seemed to be installed mainly in Asia. Things changed very quickly; the contagion spread; classes moved online, and the university shut down its installations, including the DRCLAS offices and finally the library. We decided to go back home after only two months to be close to our family and friends during the pandemic. 

Mauricio Duce, Veronica Figueroa and Lucía Dammert on the Charles River.

My daughter Camila and I, together with Verónica and Mauricio, took a flight to Santiago March 20, subject to multiple changes of schedule, cancellations and quite a bit of uncertainty about whether we could actually get home. The four hours of waiting in the JFK Airport in New York were literally eternal. We were a returning team, four who with diverse necessities and emotions supported each other in a process that was not easy for any of us. While we waited, we saw the U.S. political debate unfold on the television in the airport lounge. We saw President Trump declaring his gratitude to big businesses for the support they almost immediately provided in the effort to do away with the threat. We also watched Governor Cuomo, recognizing the coming crisis would have profound effects for the country and New York in particular. The messages seemed contradictory then, and seen in retrospect the irresponsibility of some political decisions will be analyzed in the human crisis afflicting New York and the United States today. 

I’m a frequent traveler, but never have I experienced anything remotely like this time in which we looked with anxiety at the masks and the constant disinfecting, even fearing the very air we breathed. Silence was only broken by worried conversations, intimate memories of interupted trips, separated families and our expectations about finally landing in Chile. We were lucky to get on one of the last flights to Chile from New York. 

We arrived and returned to the past. 

The day we landed in Chile, only 434 cases of Covid-19 had been recognized by the authorities and very few people had been hospitalized, according to official data. We did two weeks of self-imposed self-quarantine. Quite a few of our friends thought we were reacting in an exaggerated fashion. At the end of the day, it became clear that it was hard for them to understand  the possibility of thinking about others, of taking care of oneself to take care of others as a vital decision. 

Six weeks have gone by since our return.  Like the rest of Latin America, Chile faces the pandemic on several fronts. Unlike Peru or Argentina, Chile has not declared a general quarantine, and it appears that the government is not disposed to take that measure. However, some districts or neighborhoods have decreed a quarantine. The malls are closed and there is a curfew from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. Several voices reclaim with great emphasis the need to impose a quarantine for the metropolitan region (with the greatest concentration of population in Chile) or even a countrywide one. The government response has been to define specific quarantines, based on comunas (districts) with the highest numbers of cases. These tend to be of a higher socio-economic class, those who brought the virus from Europe, the United States and Asia. After several weeks, the presence of the virus and contagion are now distributed throughout the territory; contagion is communitarian, and general anxiety has increased. 

The pandemic has uncloaked the inequality of our countries. The quarantine of the better-off contrasts with the lockdown of the poorest and even of the precarious middle class. The same sectors that took to the streets last year today suffer the consequences of a health crisis which will bring profound economic and social transformations in the medium term. Public and private schools have cancelled their in-school classes to go online. We believed that the Internet was a basic product, but in reality, thousands of children and youth are not connected and do not have the basic tools for distance learning. And that’s not to mention the steep learning curve for professors who have to reinvent their teaching techniques. Inequality is a snapshot of precariousness and profound educational difficulty. 

Photo by Patricio Cortés

Women have an enormous burden in this pandemic. Taking charge of most of the household tasks, as well as the care of children and grandparents, their concern for the duration of the restrictions increases day by day. In the same manner, in spite of the fact that the surge in reported accusations have diminished machista violence and, in general, domestic problems, many worry about the difficulties of thousands of women as they live in quarantine with their abusers. Indeed, the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality revealed that calls to its helpline for domestic abuse increased 70 % in April 2020. Not unlike the way in which the pandemic is playing out in other parts of the world, in Chile, the pandemic also affects women in a different way from men. 

The concern about the fate of the economy is at the center of public debate. Many businesses have been deeply affected by the lack of demand, and others such as shopping centers, movie theatres and department stores have been shuttered. The forecasts are overwhelming in a society in which an important part of the citizenry works in the informal sector. Small- and medium-size businesses are for the most part using the tools designed by the government that allow them to maintain workers on their payroll, paying their benefits, but not their salaries. The workers in turn are supported by unemployment benefits, basically the workers’ mandated savings for crisis situations. More than 66,000 businesses had resorted to this mechanism, that is,   more than 515,000 workers find themselves in a precarious situation. To this, onc might add the 299,000 employees laid off from large companies. Everyday, one also hears about large firms asking for help from the state to avoid bankruptcy and massive layoffs, and it is still surprising to hear some who previously agitated for the minimum role of the state and the importance of the “invisible hand” of the free market to solve any problem now asking for state help in order to survive.

Social unrest following the pandemic is feared or when the most complex elements of the pandemic materialize in the form of unemployment, lack of access to health care or the collapse of the prison system. In the last few days, we have seen an increase in social conflict in some sectors of society that are demanding structural change, as well as specific measures to confront the pandemic and the economic crisis.

Although experts had some initial disagreements, the government formed an advisory board (whose declarations and resolutions can be found online) that publicly has been collaborating with the government and also debating some of its decisions. Likewise, diverse civil society organizations and experts have paid close attention to the information given by the government, recognizing that epidemiological vigilance is key to decision-making. An example of these reports and proposals can be found on Espacio Público [Public Space] ( This process has resulted in the generation of better systems, although far from perfect, to diagnose the problem and the presence of Covid-19 in Chile. The Health Ministry has taken measures such as the mandatory use of masks and the development of tests.  We are faced with a permanent process of trial-and-error. 

On May 1, 245 people had died of the virus out of 18,435 diagnosed cases. More than 189,000 tests have been performed. Just between May 1 and May 2, the number of cases increased by 1,427, the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic, which shows how far we are from the end of the crisis. As we all now now, the magic to controlling the virus is in testing capacity and contact tracing. The government and experts are working to increase the health system’s capacity, anticipating that during the peak weeks for the virus between the end of April and the beginning of May, there will be enough intensive care hospital beds and artificial respirators. We are above the curve, and it is not clear if it will flatten or be postponed or what will happen, but one thing seems certain: the worst is yet to come. 

Photo by Patricio Cortés

At the same time, public and private pressure to allow businesses to reopen, to permit movement in the economy and to allow people to return to work is evident. Under discussion is the possibility of soon reopening schools and malls as signs of certain “achievement.” There is also the pressure of national and international experts who stress the danger of opening up spaces without having sufficient tests or contact tracing. 

Chile will face the challenge of the pandemic against a very clear backdrop. Citizens’ mass protests in 2019 recognized the necessity to change important parts of the economic model. In particular, the health system, which is privatized, must be transformed; the pensions, which now fluctuate to the rhythm of the stock market, must guarantee subsistance levels; in general, the the subsidiary of the state as defined by the constitution must be changed. The post-pandemia—if we ever get to that stage—also will be one of turbulence, one in which the political world will be obligated to recognize the necessity of structural transformations. 

We returned from Cambridge to a Chile in transformation. My stay at Harvard was short but important. Contrary to everything we had planned, it showed me that we learn the most when we are open to listen to differences, to escape from our safe space of tranquility, when the criticism is constructive and finally when we recognize that everything can change from one moment to the other. I am confident that good decisions will allow us to face the pandemic with the least possible human cost and to establish the basis for a new conversation about the very pillars of our democratic systems. 


Lucia Dammert, Spring 2020 Custer Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS,  is a Professor of International Relations at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Born in Peru, her research interests lie in the field of public security, criminal organizations and criminal justice reform.  Among her most recent books are Fear of Crime in Latin America (2012, Routledge) and Maras (2011, University of Texas Press) edited with Thomas Bruneau. She has held key advisory positions in Chile, Argentina, México and Perú and has served as key advisor at the Organization of American States and other regional organizations. At the global level she has been invited to be part of the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters.