woman/riot police
© Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
Woman detained by riot police protesting the lack of help from the government during quarantine in El Bosque area in Santiago, Chile, May 18, 2020.
There is no doubt that the best way to combat the spread of the global pandemic of the new coronavirus is through a strong policy of social isolation and quarantine, aiming to reduce the risks of contagion through physical contact between people. Such biological risk management policies imply, however, certain social costs, such as closing trade and suspending several jobs, which has consequences, such as unemployment and bankruptcy of companies. Therefore, for a country to survive, it is necessary to implement a series of auxiliary measures, such as government assistance to the neediest, price control of basic items, among others. When a state fails to implement such measures, the result is complete social chaos and then the population is put at a crossroad between the virus and misery.

It is precisely this absence of state intervention in favor of auxiliary measures that is causing structural economic crises in several countries today. Some governments tend to be totally averse to aid and intervention policies, even in times of pandemic. This is exactly the case in Chile, where social chaos is already in place and day after day the country is getting closer to collapse.

Across Chile, protests against the neglect of Sebastián Piñera's neoliberal government have strengthened and become increasingly violent. In "El Bosque", south of the capital Santiago, the population took to the streets and formed a great barricade against the security forces. The organization of the protests is absolutely popular, organized by the local urban communities, which, regardless of ideologies or political agendas, demand from the government action to contain the hunger and increase the policies to help the population prevented from working by the advance of the pandemic. Since October last year, Sebastián Piñera has suffered a great deal of disapproval from the population and his neoliberal-oriented government is the target of great popular manifestations; now, the president faces even greater satisfaction because of his inertia.

The reports of the people involved in the organization of the protests make clear the nature of these demonstrations, Alicia, a 44-year-old popular leader reveals:
"We live on what we worked on that day. I work at the fair and today we have no money nor what to eat. Here there is abandonment, there is abuse, there are elderly people prostrated and they ask us to stay at home, without receiving help; this is what we have left."
Juan, 51, a member of the territorial assembly of his popular sector in El Bosque, says:
"The residents of El Bosque have decided to leave despite the quarantine, for a very simple reason: hunger does not wait for anyone, at least in this sector of the old condition of misery, here nobody tells anyone what it is to feel hungry - not that kind of hunger that some have as a simple passing symptom, but the one that despairs - that hunger that you know you need to risk to solve it, the one that doesn't recognize viruses or quarantine, that hunger that defies all the war artillery that is emerging, with soldiers prepared for war. This hunger is what presided over the inhabitants to go to war."
Rafael Agacino, political scientist and Master in Economic Sciences at Univerdad de Chile, says that the crisis has a profound relationship with the social scenario prior to the pandemic. More than 30% of the Chilean population works informally, being precarious workers and abandoned by the legal labor rules. These workers do not have a contract, fixed salary, vacation and or insurance, being absolutely vulnerable, left to their own devices and dependent on their own exhaustive effort for their professional success. With social isolation, this entire mass of workers was prevented to work in large urban centers and, consequently, ended up being thrown, without salary, without rights and without guarantees.

Specifically, in El Bosque, intolerance against the government of Piñera is gaining truly exhausting proportions for the regime, with the opposition of a desperate and determined population and hostile and violent security forces. For Agacino, popular mobilizations are the result of a complex set of factors and tend to be incessant, as they reveal the high degree of popular organization of the Chilean people:
"Poplar assemblies are like genuine expressions of people's organization, where mutual support, solidarity, training, generation of local documents are practiced, moving towards dialogue, towards a great programmatic congress."
The demonstrators are, in fact, demanding changes and responses from the government, not only in relation to the pandemic but to all social issues, with the popular assemblies, voluntarily or not, starting a real popular revolt. Piñera will have to choose between his own country project and the one the population demands. Police violence against the people themselves will not work for long and, urgently, something needs to be done for the neediest.
About the Author:
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.