RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of the worst coronavirus outbreaks globally are in Latin America. One country that had initially appeared well-prepared to tackle the virus was Chile. But now Chile has one of the highest infection rates in the world. NPR's Jason Beaubien explains why.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: When the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in March among Chileans returning from abroad, the government responded quickly. They put in place quarantines in affluent neighborhoods in the capital, Santiago. In April, things were going so well that Chile was starting to talk about reopening.
THOMAS LEISEWITZ: And then May started, you know, bringing more cases and more cases. And currently, we have, in my opinion, more cases than we are able to handle.
BEAUBIEN: Thomas Leisewitz is a physician in Santiago, and he heads up strategic development at a major Catholic health care network in Chile. He says Chile did a lot to prepare for an influx of cases, and the problem wasn't testing capacity or ICU beds or ventilators.
LEISEWITZ: Ventilators haven't been, at this point, the bottleneck - although at some point, they can be.
BEAUBIEN: Chile is a high-income country with a vibrant economy, a strong health care system. It wasn't a lack of resources in Chile that allowed the virus to spread incredibly rapidly. Andrea Insunza, a writer in Santiago, says it was a lack of social cohesion.
ANDREA INSUNZA: In Chile, there are two countries.
BEAUBIEN: Insunza runs the center for investigative journalism at the Universidad Diego Portales.
INSUNZA: There is a country for people like me. I have a good education; I have a good salary.
BEAUBIEN: She has access to high-quality private hospitals and clinics, but there's also another Chile.
INSUNZA: And that Chile is poor, and you depend on public health.
BEAUBIEN: Last October, violent street protests erupted in Santiago over a fare hike on the subway of 30 pesos, or less than 5 U.S. cents. The protests became about far more than the price of a subway ride. Chile is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America according to the World Bank. And while extreme poverty has been driven down significantly over the last decade, the social unrest in October centered around the frustrations of lower- and middle-class Chileans. Insunza says part of the frustration is driven by the elite often not seeming to recognize their privileged lifestyles.
INSUNZA: Santiago, it's a very segregated place. So you can actually live your whole life and don't see poverty - never.
BEAUBIEN: Chile's initial attempts to deal with the outbreak in affluent neighborhoods failed because it overlooked that the elite tend to have maids and gardeners and cooks. Once the virus started spreading among lower-income residents, it quickly got out of control.
JAMES ROBINSON: One thing that's interesting about Chile is that it probably has more state capacity, you know, than - in some technical way - than any place in Latin America.
BEAUBIEN: James Robinson, a professor at the University of Chicago, is the co-author of "Why Nations Fail." He's written extensively about Latin America and Chile in particular.
ROBINSON: You know, it's - they're good at raising taxes and building roads and infrastructure, and there's not much corruption and things like that. But it's also a very polarized place.
BEAUBIEN: Robinson says many people don't trust the state. President Sebastian Pinera caused an uproar in June when he attended the funeral of his uncle. The government's COVID rules only allow 10 people at funerals, but video of the event show at least 30. The incident underscored a sense that the system is stacked in favor of the elite.
ROBINSON: There's a real problem with the social contract in Chile, it seems to me. And the way they tried to manage this thing just seemed to (ph) - exacerbated a lot of those problems.
BEAUBIEN: As Chile continues to report thousands of new cases per day, the country has extended lockdowns to more areas and put in new limits on movement to try to rein in the outbreak. In Santiago, residents who are not deemed essential workers are now only allowed to leave their houses twice a week, even to go grocery shopping.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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