COVID-19 broke out in Chile last year in the midst of an intensive social conflict rooted in the deep-seated inequalities caused by the free-market reforms in the country. The case of Chile shows how pre-existing conflict dynamics can be strongly intertwined with pandemic responses as earlier protests for greater equality paved the way for a climate facilitating ‘hunger protests’ during the pandemic. In response to growing mistrust in the state, citizens had a strong social mobilization base that drove collective action.
For many decades, Chile’s development trajectory was considered an inspiration due to its positive macroeconomic results achieved following the implementation of neoliberal policies by the dictatorship in the 1980s and supported by democratic governments to present. However, these policies produced deep inequalities among the population (Flores et al. 2019). With the eruption of protests in 2019 and the COVID-19 outbreak last year, the idea of a ‘Chilean miracle’ started to fade.
The COVID-19 pandemic reached Chile in the middle of the largest social conflict since the end of its dictatorship in 1990. Starting in October 2019, more than a million of people protested each Friday for five months in the center of Santiago, the capital city, to show their discontent and demand improved livelihood conditions. The response of the government to this movement was brutal, leading to high levels of repression, partial curfews, and large, violent clashes that ended in more than 34 casualties and 445 people with eye injuries (from riot guns wielded by the riot police) between October 2019 and February 2020.
As the mass protests proved, the government ignored the socio-economic problems faced by many sectors of the population. A clear expression of the lack of awareness from the government of the conditions experienced in many low-income neighbourhoods was shown in a public statement made by the former health minister of the country, when he stated in an interview that “[t]here is a level of poverty and overcrowding [in Chile] of which I was not aware”.
The measures implemented to address the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 were also an expression of this level of ignorance. One of the first measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak was to implement dynamic quarantines, which failed to prevent the virus from spreading from less vulnerable to the most vulnerable populations, instead increasing infection levels and mortality rates (Galarce 2020). The failure of this measure is associated with overcrowding in households, the precarity of wages, and the impossibility for people who survive off a daily income to comply with quarantine measures.
In addition to the complete lockdown that followed the dynamic quarantines, another of the early measures was to implement nighttime curfews. This measure was not well received by citizens, nor by the scientific community, which indicated that the quarantine did not have experts’ approval since there was no proof that it reduced the infection rate. They argued that it was intended to reduce civil liberties, and, generally, this measure was seen as an expression of the authoritarian nature of the government.
The inability of the measures to counter the effects of COVID-19 led to multiple demonstrations that were known as ‘hunger protests’. This time, people demanded access to food, water, and shelter as many lost their daily incomes due to the lockdown measures. The hunger protests followed the government’s announcement about the distribution of food baskets. People felt that, again, the government did not understand people’s needs—families could not wait to receive food supplies, but urgently required money to obtain (other) basic goods. The government’s response to the protests was highly repressive once more, mirroring its response to the previous protests back in October 2019.
The countrywide social movement leading protests in 2019 and 2020 articulated different demands and had no centralized leadership. It encouraged self-organized local assemblies (asambleas territoriales) composed of young and elderly people and was founded due to mistrust in the existing institutions. These local assemblies embodied collective organization to resist and shape new relationships and solve immediate problems in the neighbourhoods. The movement that led protests months before COVID-19 emerged therefore played an important role during the pandemic, enabling Chileans to solve difficulties the pandemic and the government’s response to it by themselves through collective action.
One of these initiatives is the so-called ‘ollas comunes’ (‘common pots’) through which people helped stave off hunger by cooking for each other. This measure to respond to the COVID-19 disaster is related to previous responses to social conflicts in Chile. As stated by Clarisa Hardy (1986), the ollas comunes initiative is associated with workers’ layoffs and repression suffered after the 1973 coup d’état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. Therefore it has a strong component of collective memory. This initiative also proved that the self-organization that arose during the protests could solve immediate problems in a context characterized by high levels of mistrust towards the government in a crucial moment for state intervention like a pandemic. It also opened the possibility to act collectively outside of the common frameworks provided by the state and the market.
Hardy, C. 1986. ‘Hambre + Dignidad = Ollas Comunes.’ Accessed August 11, 2020 http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/archivos2/pdfs/MC0033331.pdf
Flores, I.; Sanhueza, C.; Atria, J. 2019. ‘Top incomes in Chile: a historical perspective on income inequality, 1964-2017’, Review of Income and Wealth, pp. 1-25.
Tinsman, H. 2006. ‘Reviving Feminist Materialism: Gender and Neoliberalism in Pinochet’s Chile,’ The University of Chicago Press 26(1): 145-188.
 Many estimations had been made using different methodologies. All of them are relatively consistent in suggesting that the richest 1% hold between 25%-33% of the national income. For an in-depth discussion, see the following analysis (in Spanish): https://www.ciperchile.cl/2019/12/10/parte-ii-la-desigualdad-es-una-decision-politica/
 For the complete declarations, see the following interview (in Spanish): https://www.latercera.com/politica/noticia/manalich-reconoce-que-en-un-sector-de-santiago-hay-un-nivel-de-pobreza-y-hacinamiento-del-cual-yo-no-tenia-conciencia-de-la-magnitud-que-tenia/5BQZLGLOPVDDPKQ2SNSSSWRGYU/
 Dynamic quarantines are those applied to a specific place in a territory (a municipality, for example), and that can be lifted or imposed based on the regular analysis of certain patterns, particularly the number of COVID-19 cases in each place under quarantine.
 Galarce, A. (2020, May 19). Experto en salud pública USACH: “Las cuarentenas dinámicas hicieron que el virus migrara hacia una población más vulnerable”. Radiousach.cl. Accessed August 10, 2020 https://www.radiousach.cl/experto-en-salud-publica-usach-las-cuarentenas-dinamicas-hicieron-que
 At the time of publication, the curfews were still imposed, even though the partial lockdowns were lifted and the COVID-19 infection rate diminishing.
 “Common pots involve women pooling the food rations of individual families to collectively provide more substantial meals to entire groups of families, workers and neighborhoods” (Tinsman 2006).
This research was part of the “When Disaster Meets Conflict” project. It was undertaken between July and September 2020 and comprised the analysis of secondary sources (news and articles related to the Chilean protests of 2019-2020 and the government’s responses to the COVID-19 crisis). Additionally, five semi-structured interviews were carried out. The interviews included key actors from the Chilean private sector, government, and civil society. The purpose of these interviews was to know these actors’ points of view on the impact and the government’s response to the sanitary crisis
About the authors:
Ana Isabel Alduenda studied International Relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and is a current student of the MA in Development Studies at ISS, major Governance and Development Policy. She has worked in the public sector and as a consultant in topics related to government accountability and human rights. Her research interests focus on anti-corruption policies, open data, and gender violence. In addition, she has developed a genuine interest in the social phenomena surrounding pandemics.
Camila Ramos Vilches studied Social Work at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and is a current student of the MA in Development Studies at ISS, major Human Rights, Gender and Conflict Studies: Social Justice Perspectives. She has worked in local NGOs related to grassroots development, and international NGOs related to sustainable development in the private sector. Her research interests focus on gendered analysis within organizations, diversity and inclusion management and sustainable development.
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