Benjamin Sarquis Peillard
Benjamin is a senior at Georgetown University, studying Finance and Chinese. He was born in Chile, to French and Syrian parents. He lived in Texas during his secondary education, before moving to Washington, DC. Aside from his Finance studies, he is passionate about the topic of collective memory and its political implications.
About the collection
This collection of interviews is meant to archive the experiences of Chileans of various backgrounds during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has mostly spread to the wealthy areas of Santiago, with a few cases reported elsewhere. By April 2020, the number of cases was slightly above 10,000, with around 5,000 recoveries and 147 deaths.
The pandemic came to Chile during its worst social crisis since the fall of the Pinochet regime in the 1990s. Chile had been the success story for neoliberalism, with policies of free trade and low government intervention making Chile the most developed country in Latin America. Despite this economic progress, inequalities remained. Resentment over these inequalities boiled over when the government’s decision to increase the metro fare in October 2019 sparked mass protests across the country. Several metro stations were destroyed, and hundreds of stores and factories were looted by protesters. These lootings caused most of the deaths associated with the protests, as fires started by the protesters cost the lives of many looters. There were also incidents of police exerting excessive use of force, including the use of rubber bullets to stop protesters. Some thirty people died and thousands were left unemployed as a result of the protests, which slowed during the summer months of December, January, and February as the pandemic unfolded.
The movement was supposed to reach fruition with a March referendum on whether to amend the constitution. The referendum was canceled as part of a broad effort to combat the pandemic. Many note that the arrival of coronavirus marked the end of the reform movement. Now, Chile finds itself in its second economic crisis in a 12-month period: the first came from the violent protests and the second from the Great Lockdown.
The interviews are in Spanish. I have included English summaries for non-Spanish speakers.
Also included is a gallery containing memes from the Chilean community in Beijing. The Community in Beijing communicates through a WeChat group. Chileans from various sectors of society are part of this group: students, diplomats, teachers, and businesspeople. I was added to this group during my study abroad in Beijing in Spring 2019. This group is used to help Chileans navigate living in China, update each other on important news, and share together the experience of living abroad. I did not obtain permission to share the messages in the group chat, but I was given permission to show these memes shared within the chat. These images reflect the experience of Chileans in China during the pandemic, which can be compared with the testimonials of Chileans in the U.S. and those in Chile posted in this gallery.
On the quarantine: It’s been hard for her to stay at home for so long; she tries to be an active person. People are only allowed to leave twice a week for three hours at a time and must get a permit to do so from the police. The lack of human contact has also been difficult. She misses interacting with others.
The pandemic has helped her adopt new technologies, as she learned how to pay her bills online out of fear of getting the virus. She has not yet learned to take online classes in lieu of the regular university courses she takes but intends on doing so. She says that online interactions will become the new norm, and that Chile, a country used to human interaction, will have a hard time adjusting.
On the economy: She anticipates that Chile will endure some hardships given its dependence of other countries for many of its goods. She says that Chile needs to learn to meet its own needs. There have been many young entrepreneurs starting new businesses as a result of the pandemic, according to her.
On the quarantine: As a Chilean military officer studying at Georgetown University, life has not changed too much for him. He used to spend most of his time studying at home. What has changed is that now he takes his classes online. His son and wife have been affected more as they spend more time outside of the house, specially his son with school. Due to his military training, he has been able to face the changes without much impact on his mental state.
On the economy: The economy will probably not change structurally with regard to the dependence it has on other countries, he claims. Chile will continue its policy of free trade that has made it the most successful economy in Latin America. Chile will not have the typical response of Latin American countries, which is protectionism. The rate at which Chile recovers depends on how fast the world economy recovers, as Chile is very exposed to international markets. After the pandemic, Chile will remain an attractive place for investors as it offers a consistently stable economy.
Health measures: He did not make any political comments since he is an army officer. He described the health measures through data, stating that the contamination rate per sick person is very low and that the amount of people being contaminated is almost the same as the amount of people recovering. He attributes this to Chile’s health system, which is much more advanced than those of other Latin American countries. He also points to Chile’s economic strength to explain why testing has been so high.
The role of the military: The armed forces have played an important role in managing the pandemic in Chile, setting up field hospitals in rural areas, organizing transportation of supplies, and helping with the quarantine in Santiago. Politicians are good at managing the country when it is in a stable, normal state; the armed forces, however, are better trained at handling situations that are less than optimal. This is why they have played such a large role in the pandemic. Unlike the US, Chile has centralized decision-making and decentralized implementation. The decisions are made by the government in Santiago and are carried out by the army and local officials in each region. Many service members have contracted the virus, but it is a sacrifice that they are willing to make to protect the country.
On moving back to Chile: He had planned to go back to Chile in June but is now stuck in the US until December. He doesn’t see going back to Chile now as a good idea given that the country is entering the flu season. He is equally pessimistic about staying in the US though, as he sees the pandemic having a much worse outcome in the US.
On health measures in Chile: According to him, the Chilean government has taken enough measures to stop the spread of the virus. He points to other countries like Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, who have fired their health ministers, as proof that Chile’s health minister is doing comparatively better. He thinks that a lot of people will die in Brazil, where the president denies the severity of the pandemic, as well as Venezuela.
On health measures in the US: He claims US Americans feel that they do not believe in what they cannot see due to their history, and are thus not taking this outbreak seriously. He believes that the government is focusing too much on the economy and that many people will die in the US as a result. He has seen many people in public in the US not wearing masks. His wife has to go work at her office, because her work was deemed essential by US authorities. He’s amazed by how simple the process is to become an essential business in the US.
On the economy in Chile: In Chile, employers are obliged to give severance packages to employees if they fire them. Chile also has free healthcare and welfare programs. This will protect individuals from suffering from the effects of the pandemic. Chile has the necessary funds to deal with this crisis but will not be in a good economic position afterwards. He fears for the future of the Chilean economy, however, given how dependent it is on the success of the global economy.
On the economy in the US: He thinks that the US will not stop its economy for anything, regardless of how many people die. He feels that the US government is prioritizing the economy over the health of its people. The US does not have sufficient protections for unemployed people, so the impact of the virus will be greater in the US.
On social unrest in Chile: The social unrest in Chile has completely stopped due to the virus. He agrees that Chile has many inequalities and that it must be reformed, but he was not optimistic about the protests that had overwhelmed the country. He thought during the protests that the successful miracle that was the Chilean economy would no longer exist after the referendum to change the constitution. The referendum and the protests will not take place for months, so he believes that the reforms will be more pragmatic and sober.
Mental Health Worker
On health measures: Chile has done a great job at preventing the spread of the virus according to her. People must get permits to leave their homes and fines are given to those who don’t abide by the quarantine. These measures have only been implemented in the municipalities within Santiago that have been exposed to the virus. There haven’t been any problems with homeless people, since Chile does not have a homeless problem of the magnitude that other countries like the US have.
Professionally, her work has been strongly impacted by the pandemic. Mental health was not initially deemed an essential medical service, so she was not able to see patients for a couple of weeks. As hospitals begin to adopt tele-health, she will be able to continue her work. She deems the pandemic a mental health crisis as well. People are not used to mixing their work and family lives. This has created stress within families and companies that have seen lower productivity. She highlighted that autistic children will suffer from confinement and lack of access to their therapies.
On the economy: The pandemic comes as a second blow to the economy, as the protests had already left many unemployed. Contractors will be the most affected economically. Since they are not regular employees, they do not receive severance packages as they will not technically have been fired, even though they do not receive income. The government has taken measures to protect low income workers and independent contractors, but nothing has been done for contractors associated with single companies. As a contractor for a single hospital, she falls into this category of unprotected workers. She believes that the government should be careful to ensure that the economic crisis does not create a social crisis. She fears that worsening economic conditions could bring violence.
On his own professional impact: He owns an insurance brokerage firm that services small and medium-sized companies. Some of his clients have had to lower their insurance coverage as a result of the slowing economy. There are some industries like agriculture that have not slowed down as food production and distribution are essential. The government has done much to help businesses that have been significantly impacted by the virus. His company does not qualify for this aid as it has not seen a large enough decrease in revenue.
On social unrest: The social unrest that had overwhelmed the nation has completely stopped according to him. People are only focusing on the virus now, with the constitutional referendum being postponed until October. There was never a leader for the movement so as soon as the momentum disappeared, the movement stopped. The social crisis was real, he says, due to the inequalities that persist in Chile despite the economic progress of the country. The president managed the social unrest very poorly but has done much better with this health problem.
On health measures: He feels that the government has taken enough steps to prevent the spread of the virus. They’ve only quarantined the municipalities that have been exposed to the virus. Flattening the curve is vital, as the impact on the health system would otherwise be catastrophic. He added that he has trusts the official statistics given by the government.
On the economy: He is worried about the combined effect of the social unrest and the pandemic on the economy. Many were left unemployed due to the violence of the protests and now the virus will leave many more unemployed. The national debt will also have to increase to pay for economic and health initiatives. Chile used to have a very low national debt (7% of GDP), which grew to around 25% of GDP under President Bachelet. He noted that while this is much lower than the US national debt, it is an unprecedented amount for Chile. This debt will probably increase much more due to the virus
On education: He sees communities with less resources having serious problems with educational continuity. Not everyone has reliable internet access or electronic devices from which to attend classes.
On food and supplies: Chile has not experienced any problems with its food chain. He has not seen any empty shelfs like in other countries. He personally uses delivery services to get groceries.
Retirement Services Salesperson
On social unrest: She claims that the social unrest has completely stopped, and that people only speak of the protests when discussing recent shocks to the economy. There are some people that see the virus as a punishment on the wealthy class in Chile, sincethe pandemic has mostly affected the neighborhoods whose residents have the means to travel. She strongly dislikes these comments and sees the neighborhoods affected as middle-class, not rich.
[N.B. Most wealthy people in Chile, with the exception of the six richest families, see themselves as middle-class. This is contested by less affluent in Chile, who accuse those people of faking the middle-class status.]
On the impact on her professionally: As a retirement services salesperson, her job involves making calls to strangers. She says that ever since the outbreak of the pandemic, the people that she calls have started to answer in a more polite manner than before. She feels that people are beginning to have more respect for others.
On wealth measures: According to her, the government has taken enough measures to address the pandemic. She personally knows the health minister and trusts in his ability to deal with the health crisis. She thinks that the health system in Chile is, and has always been, much more stable than those in other Latin American countries.
Takeaways from the pandemic: She believes that there is a lesson to be learned from this pandemic, not just as individuals but also as a society. We have not taken care of the Earth and now we’re being given a chance to pause and think about our actions. She states that we cannot continue as we were after the pandemic. We must choose to reform ourselves and society.
Mental Health Worker
Enterprise Insurance Broker