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Chile sees Covid surge despite vaccination success


Chile’s Health Minister Enrique Paris has been striking a gloomy note at his daily Covid news conferences in recent days.

The number of daily cases reached a new record high on 9 April, going over 9,000 for the first time since the pandemic began and considerably higher than the previous peak of just under 7,000 cases in mid-June.

“It’s worrying,” he said last Friday. “We’re going through a critical moment of the pandemic… I urge you to take care of yourselves, of your loved ones, of your families.”

Intensive care units are again overwhelmed, the country has for a second time closed its borders to everyone who is not a resident and most of its 18 million inhabitants are back in lockdown.

“It feels like we’re going backwards,” says Santiago resident Sofía Pinto. “We need to download special permits online to be allowed out just twice a week for essential things like food shopping or doctor’s visits.”

Graph showing Chile's confirmed Covid cases

The frustration and confusion many Chileans are feeling over the renewed lockdown is due partly to the fact that just two months ago, President Sebastián Piñera was boasting about Chile having one of the fastest vaccination rollouts in the world.

What went wrong?

Critics have accused the Piñera government of getting caught up in triumphalism over the vaccine rollout and of having loosened coronavirus restrictions too fast.

Like governments across the world, ministers here faced difficult choices.

Chile’s borders had been closed – bar for a few exceptions – from March to November 2020. But after a strict lockdown had driven the rolling seven-day average down to 1,300 cases in November, the decision was taken to reopen them, including to international tourists.

Chileans were also given special holiday permits to travel more freely around the country during the southern hemisphere summer holidays after some experts argued it was important for people’s mental health.

Restaurants, shops, and holiday resorts were opened up to kickstart the faltering economy.

Graph showing Chile's vaccine roll out

Fast, but not in time for the holidays

And while the vaccination rollout has indeed been fast, it only started in late December, with front-line health care workers, those over 90, and teachers first in line.

So the vast majority of Chileans would not yet have been vaccinated by the time they met up with relatives and friends for their summer holidays in January and February.

Add to that the spread of new, more easily transmittable variants of the virus such as the P.1 variant, which is thought to have emerged in Brazil’s Amazonas state in November.

Dr Susan Bueno, a professor of immunology from the Pontifical Catholic University, says the recent surge is “a multi-factor issue”, but that she thinks the new variants are having a “huge impact”.

She says the message about how to prevent contagion, such as wearing masks and washing your hands, was also somewhat neglected during the summer months in Chile. That, she explains, “is probably one of the causes of the outbreaks we are seeing now”.

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