A steep rise in coronavirus cases in Chile has plunged the government into crisis and prompted intense criticism of its management of the pandemic.
Divisions between the government and sectors of the medical community led to the resignation of the health minister, Jaime Mañalich, on Saturday, shortly after 234 deaths in 24 hours had been confirmed, the highest daily toll to date. Chile is among the countries with the highest number of cases relative to population size.
“I want to call for dialogue and cooperation between research centres, the medical union and scientific community,” Mañalich’s successor, Dr Enrique Paris, a former head of Chile’s medical union, said. “Here begins a new era in which we must hear contrasting opinions.”
The pandemic has claimed the lives of 3,101 people who have tested positive for the virus in Chile, but the government’s statistics has been repeatedly questioned.
An investigation found on Friday that according to unpublished health ministry data more than 5,000 people had died when probable coronavirus deaths were incorporated into the total, as per World Health Organization guidelines.
According to government statistics, Chile has confirmed 167,355 cases since its first case on 3 March, the vast majority recorded after the government prematurely espoused a gradual return to normality in April.
While case numbers were still low, an “immunity passport” scheme was devised, but the government backtracked quickly when the WHO expressed concern over the plans and said there was no proven link between recovery and immunity.
“Health system capacity was not the problem in Chile,” said Dr Álvaro Erazo, a former health minister. “But our ability to handle the crisis has been negated by a lacklustre communications strategy that saw the government encourage people to go back to normal, all while the curve was soaring upwards.”
The health ministry had also promoted a strategy of “dynamic” lockdowns, in which quarantines were imposed and lifted strategically across the capital. The policy was unsuccessful because commuter travel between unrestricted regions continued to proliferate the spread of the virus.
Mañalich later admitted in a television interview that he had not appreciated the level of poverty and overcrowding in parts of the capital, which partly explained the government’s inability to stem the spread of the virus in the poorer southern suburbs. His willingness to implement expert advice was also questioned.
“Given the government’s unpopularity at the onset of the pandemic, a more inclusive and participatory approach would certainly have been better,” said Dr Ximena Aguilera, a member of the government’s advisory committee.
“The panel of experts was only convened in March when the virus had already arrived in Chile, and the scientific community did not get its wish with regard to the data it wanted published. We must hope that this improves with the change of leadership.”
Opposition politicians are considering a constitutional complaint against Mañalich, a close friend of the president who survived a cabinet reshuffle a week before his resignation, alleging his complicity in the poor management of the pandemic. If upheld, he could be barred from holding public office for five years.
Santiago has been under quarantine for over a month, and concern has shifted to the cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar on Chile’s central coastline, the country’s second largest population centre, which were placed under lockdown on Friday following a steady rise in cases.