The Politics of Coronavirus in Chile

By: José Miguel Cabezas (GSAS’12)

Date: July 2020

Topics: Politics, Government

Contact: [email protected]


This research project analyzes the effect of Chile’s policy response to Covid-19 on the behavior and choices of individuals infected with the virus. This analysis of political announcements from March to June 2020 shows that government policies can effectively reduce – or encourage – the movement of individuals during a pandemic. Additionally, this analysis supports the findings that mobilization is a direct mechanism in the spread of Covid-19. This is not an epidemiological study; rather, this project argues that citizens pay attention to politics and change their behaviors in response to political decisions.

The year 2019 ended with the emergence of a previously unknown disease, Covid-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) received reports of a “pneumonia of unknown cause" spreading in China on December 31 of 2019. Six months later, more than 10 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed around the world. This animation shows the global spread of confirmed cases from January to June 30.

The study begins with a global analysis of the institutional determinants for the spread of Covid-19. In particular, state capacity, level of democracy and economic performance play a huge role in controlling the spread of the virus. In this analysis, level of democracy is drawn from The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index and wealth is measured using national GDP per capita. Since democratic leaders are accountable for their actions, democracies will have a better handle on Covid-19 and thus lower caseloads. Wealthier countries will be able to perform in a similar manner. The analyses show that flawed democracies, such as Brazil, Italy and the US, have fewer cases than autocracies or countries with lower levels of democracy, such as Russia or Iran, after controlling for population and economic performance in the model.

Following the global, comparative institutional explanation, the study focuses on the Chilean case. The spread of new cases in Chile through June 30 of 2020, as illustrated in this animation, supports an alternative, political explanation in addition to the epidemiologic or public health approach. The Chilean government has made more than 400 political decisions and policies concerning the pandemic. By sorting these policies into three categories, “economic", “mobilization" and “misleading announcements", the study estimates that the latter category of policies and announcements explain a large amount of new cases. For example, with each misleading announcement, such as the call to return to a ‘new normal’ and the statement that the ‘Chilean Government has been fully prepared from January,’ the national level of cases rose by 500 new cases on average. Yet data shows that the virus was far from under control when government officials made these misleading statements, which created an environment conducive to the continued spread of Covid-19. A complete list of the policies and administrative decisions analyzed from January to June of 2020 can be found here.

The Chilean Central Government decided that the most effective way to reduce the spread of Covid-19 was to implement “dynamic quarantines." These quarantines, which started in a handful of communes and were later expanded to more than 50 communes around the country, imposed a complete curfew for individuals with limited exceptions. This research analyzes the effect of quarantines on the emergence of new cases with a particular focus on the poverty and overcrowding levels of different communes.

 At the national level, the study finds that, in general, higher numbers of new cases are explained by the % of poor individuals by commune. The analysis then focuses on the communes placed under complete quarantine. These communes share two characteristics in contrast to the communes of the rest of the country. New cases spread at a lower speed than in the rest of the quarantined communes. Additionally, the pattern of Covid-19 spread in these communes illustrates the unfortunate pattern that greater levels of household overcrowding are associated with higher numbers of new cases.

By May 15 most of the communes in the Santiago Metropolitan Region were under quarantine. Analysis of these communes shows differences not only from the general national level findings but also from other quarantined communes in the rest of the country. The number of new cases in quarantined communes in the Santiago Metropolitan Region spread at a lower rate than in other quarantined communes, but unfortunately, levels of overcrowding had a more detrimental impact on the spread of the virus than in the rest of the country. In addition, new cases increased at higher rates during quarantine in communes with higher levels of overcrowded households. An animation of the new cases in the Metropolitan Region can be seen here. These findings provide evidence demonstrating that in order for policies to effectively combat the spread of Covid-19, policies must take into consideration the local characteristics of each commune. The analysis provided here shows that “dynamic quarantines” are not a one-size-fit all policy.


For a more detailed explanation of the previously described findings and more, use this link for the browsable version and this link for the PDF download.