Time Passage

A story by Felipe León

A day in Chile under COVID-19

In October 2019, Chile entered into a so-called Social Crisis, brought about by rampant inequality. For nearly three months, millions of Chileans protested in the streets, paralyzing the country’s cities, and its economy, in the process. Not only did this envelope Chile in a cloud of uncertainty, but it also raised new hopes among the most economically vulnerable that their needs were going to be heard by the government.

The national movement that resulted in the Social Crisis began after the government’s expert council for metropolitan transportation announced a fare increase for “Metro de Santiago”, the subway system of Santiago, Chile’s capital. Student groups began to riot, first in Santiago, and were soon joined by unions and social organizations across the country. For weeks, police and protesters clashed in the streets, destroying public and private infrastructure.

What started as a complaint against increasing subway fare metastasized into widespread anger over Chile’s high cost of living, low pensions rates, and exorbitant medical and health-care bills, signalling deep antipathy towards public institutions and political elites.

32 people died, 3,400 protesters, bystanders, and curfew breakers were hospitalized, and more than 3,000 policemen were hurt in the clashes; another 8,000 people were arrested or detained. Many human rights institutions accused the Chilean government of human rights violations while also highlighting several severe cases of police excess.

Nationwide unrest led to a financial crisis. With protesters flooding urban commercial areas, businesses were forced to close. 300,000 workers lost their jobs and at least 700 stores were looted. Making matters worse, the Chilean peso suffered an historical devaluation and the country’s GDP was forecasted to shrink by at least 1% in 2020.

Normally one of Chile’s busiest urban areas, Viña del Mar is now half empty and eerily quiet. In fact, it is virtually unrecognizable.

However, the Social Crisis also triggered the announcement of various political and social changes, including an increase to pensions and the minimum wage, upgrades to the national public health system, higher taxes on the rich, and the creation of a new national welfare system for children. The process also resulted in the government calling for a referendum in April to alter Chile’s constitution.

Despite these announcements, a new wave of social unrest appeared to be building. By March 2020, pro-union movements were calling for new protests against President Sebastián Piñera’s government, signalling the potential for another phase of systemic paralysis in Chile. At the time, few envisioned that such a paralysis would be caused by a force more powerful than a societal schism. 

On March 3, while the country was still attempting to resume normal operations, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the city of Talca, located 150 miles to the south of Santiago, in the heart of the country. It did not take long for the virus to spread throughout Chile, infecting thousands of people and shutting down most of society for the second time in six months. 

With Chile under lockdown, the government postponed the constitutional referendum and issued nationwide measures to contain the virus and forestall a collapse of Chile’s health-care system. Citizens were asked to adopt social distancing tactics and to wear masks when venturing outside of their homes. In addition, a temporary evening curfew was instituted, and some urban centers were placed under quarantine.

Ivan Reinoso, 24, is a journalism student from Viña del Mar, a coastal resort city lying northwest of Santiago. In April, after confining himself indoors for more than a month – first with his mother, and then with his partner, Nicole – he left his apartment for the first time in order to accompany Nicole to a health clinic.    

The following video documents their trip into the city’s center. Normally one of Chile’s busiest urban areas, Viña del Mar is now half empty and eerily quiet. In fact, it is virtually unrecognizable to these two young students still reeling from the past six months of turmoil.

Made by NYU's Studio 20 graduate journalism program.