Hard hit early by Covid-19, Chile now is Latin America’s clear vaccine leader

By Maria M. Mur

Santiago, Mar 3 (efe-epa).- Chile on Wednesday marked one year since its first coronavirus case, a 12-month period in which it has gone from being one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic worldwide to Latin America’s undisputed Covid-19 vaccine leader.

A total of 3.6 million people in that South American country have already received at least one vaccine dose, an impressive total given its population of just 19 million.

On March 3, 2020, a 33-year-old doctor who had traveled to Southeast Asia became the first confirmed coronavirus case in Chile. Since then, the country has registered more than 830,000 confirmed cases and nearly 20,700 deaths attributed to Covid-19.

Unlike neighboring Peru and Argentina, Chile’s government took longer to put the country on lockdown and did not issue mandatory stay-at-home orders until mid-May 2020 in Santiago, home to 7 million inhabitants.

That strategy came under harsh criticism, with conservative President Sebastian Piñera being accused of prioritizing the economy over public health.

Chile’s hospital system was pushed to the limit but was never completely overwhelmed during the mid-winter peak of the pandemic in June and July, when around 7,000 new cases were being reported daily, the test positivity rate exceeded 35 percent and the country was among the 10 hardest-hit countries worldwide in terms of infections per-capita.

“We made mistakes, such as saying the pandemic wasn’t going to be that bad,” said Health Minister Enrique Paris, who took office last June after his predecessor resigned for allegedly underreporting the number of Covid-19 deaths.

“Those mistakes have been overcome,” Paris added. “We’ve been able to make progress and I think we’ll rate highly when it’s all said and done.”

Chile is now enduring a second coronavirus wave that began at the start of the South American summer in December and has worsened since the end of the summer vacation period in late February, with an average of 4,000 new daily cases.

“We’re concerned about the rise in cases because there was an easing of self-protection norms in the summer,” said Paris, who noted that 3,053 new coronavirus infections and 20 additional Covid-19 deaths were registered on Wednesday.

Even so, the current scenario is a far cry from 2020: the test positivity rate has fallen to around 10 percent; the country’s testing capacity is robust, with nearly 9.5 million PCR exams conducted in a year; and the number of open adult critical care beds holding steady at 165.

The proportion of the population under strict lockdown measures in recent weeks has fallen to less than 10 percent (mostly in southern Chile), and the capital is returning to normal with the opening of bars on weekends.

Schools reopened this week after having been shuttered for more than a year, although in-person attendance is voluntary.

“We’re in a complex epidemiological situation … but we need to make a big effort to keep schools open given its demonstrated importance for our children,” the executive secretary of Chile’s medical association, Jose Miguel Bernucci, told local media.

The country opened its borders in November but is requiring arriving passengers to stay in quarantine for 10 days. It also has extended a state of catastrophe and a daily curfew from 11 pm to 5 am, a measure that has begun to be questioned by the opposition.

Chile’s vaccine rollout, however, has been beyond reproach, with more than 18 percent of the population already having received at least one dose, the fourth-highest proportion worldwide after Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data website.

“What we did was replicate the experience of Israel, which has made the biggest progress worldwide, by setting up a huge space with big entrances,” the mayor of the capital district of La Florida, Rodolfo Carter, told Efe at the doors of a big stadium that has been converted into a vaccine center.

Chile has used its negotiating skill to guarantee a supply of 35 million vaccine doses from different laboratories and the Covax mechanism, a World Health Organization-led effort that aims to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The country’s extensive primary-care network also has provided a boost to its vaccine rollout.

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