Globe, Latin America

The case for framing Covid as a social problem

Latin America in a post-Covid world

A high income economy as ranked by the World Bank, Chile is considered one of the most prosperous nations in Latin America, leading the way in terms of standards of living and economic freedom. Yet, Chile is today the region’s worst impacted country as issues of spatial and socio economic segregation were overlooked by decision makers.


Mercado Lo Valledor. Photo by FAOAmericas / Flick.  Creative Commons License.

Nicolas Forsans*


Life expectancy in Chile is close to 80 years – better than the United States. Chile, along with Brazil, Argentina and Mexico was ranked among the most prepared Latin American countries when the pandemic reached the region in March 2020. And a total lockdown was imposed less than 10 days after the first case of Covid was detected in the country.

And yet, out of the 33 LAC nations, Chile is the region’s worst impacted country in terms of deaths per 100,000 population, just after Peru and Brazil.

In the first year of the pandemic Chile registered 13,000 cases per million people, or about 10 times the rate of Argentina and twice that of Brazil. How did we get to that sad state of affair?

Exploiting the cracks in Chilean society

While the country is good at raising taxes and building infrastructure, it is very polarised socially. Speaking on NPR, journalist Andrea Insunza explains how Chile is an affluent country for ‘people like me, with good education, good jobs and good salaries’ – for whom all her social security needs are privatised.

And then there is the other Chile, the ‘Chile of the poor’ where people depend on public health systems. And Santiago is no different: ‘you can live your whole life in Santiago and never see poverty’, she says.

Chile. Photo by Leosoueu / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

She has a point. In a paper entitled ‘Covid-19 has exposed the way ‘the other half (still) lives‘, researchers at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile argue that not only socioeconomic factors have been driving the pandemic in Latin America, but also that decision makers failed to take account of marginalised livelihoods, making its impact far worse.

A spatially segregated city

Santiago is a highly segregated capital city, the result of the elites’ attitudes towards the poor over hundreds of years.

Chile has long suffered housing deficits in its main urban centres. While the 1880s witnessed the concentration of precarious housing settlements on the edge of the capital city, by the start of the 20th century these informal, precarious, crowded conventillos became a social problem.

Elites feared the spread of ‘social diseases’ such as small pox and cholera which disproportionately impacted poor urban neighbourhoods.

They moved away from city centres and socioeconomic segregation intensified throughout the 20th century as part of institutionalised policy initiatives.

Census data for Santiago in 2019 show a very high concentration of neighbourhoods of ‘high or very high’ socioeconomic status to the north east of Santiago, and that of ‘low or very low’ status to the south, north and west of the capital where more than 10% of households host more than 2.5 persons per room.

Kiosko. Photo by Esteban Hernandez / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

Covid, a disease of the ‘rich’

In contrast to the fears of the elites in the early 1900s, Covid first appeared in high-income neighbourhoods. Covid started as an ‘imported’ disease – as a result of the travels of the elites from Europe and the USA.

The government quarantined hard-hit neighbourhoods and quickly devised a testing and treatment plan.

Optimism at the time was such that plans to reopen the economy were devised in April 2020, but the subsequent partial reopening of the economy led to workers spreading the virus to low-income, high-density neighbourhoods.

By mid-May when a total lockdown was imposed, the pandemic was out of control, and by June Chile had the highest reported daily incidence of cases of Covid 19 per million population in the world.

Chile’s plan to deal with the disease failed to realise that the elites had maids, drivers, cooks and gardeners who might also become infected and would end up spreading the virus in high-density neighbourhoods where most of the population live in less than 70 square meters per family with access to one, shared toilet.

Mobility data, based on cell phone data in Santiago during periods of total lockdown in the city show that people in low-income municipalities were not quarantining as intensely as in better off ones – because in a country where 30% of people work informally, 66% of households are in debt and a large proportion of households heads are single mothers, they cannot afford to stay at home.

What that research tells us is that Covid was only framed in biomedical terms, in the same way housing for the working poor was framed in the 1880s as a sanitary problem. Yet, both are social problems that acted as amplifying factors.

Valparaiso. Photo by Claudia Ramos / Flickr. Creative Commons License.

As the researchers conclude, “people in cities are interdependent: the wellbeing of communities depends on the health of all of their members”.

We are all part of an interdependent eco-system, and highly segregated cities will lead us nowhere.

* Nicolas Forsans: Professor of Management and MBA Director at the University of Essex, UK. Co-director of the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a member of many Latin American societies and think tanks, Nicolas investigates the economic and societal challenges in the region generally, and in Colombia more specifically.

(Photos: Pixabay)

The Series:

Latin America in a post-Covid world:  Assessing the damage from the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The economic damage, a depressing picture.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: Work during the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The cost of inequalities.

Latin America in a post-Covid world:  Those our governments forgot.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The urban poor and the pandemic.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: The case for framing Covid as a social problem.

Latin America in a post-Covid world: Organised crime during the pandemic.


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