Chile is a country located in the far southeast of South America. With a population of over 18 million people, Chile is the sixth most populous nation on the continent and the ninth most populous in the Western Hemisphere. The country is largely developed with a high-income classification from the World Bank, but staggering levels of poverty and hunger in Chile remain. This is mainly due to government corruption, income inequality, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Chile’s Hunger Problem
The issue of hunger in Chile is partly a result of the national government’s decades-long neoliberal policies, which have created a high level of income inequality in the country. The Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to this issue by causing widespread economic devastation.
The large number of Chilean citizens employed in informal work reveals a major connection between income inequality and hunger in Chile. The accumulation of wealth and resources, especially in terms of education and healthcare, in the hands of a very privileged elite has catalyzed the growth of poverty in Chile. A lack of financial and structural development in the country’s rural and peripheral areas has forced large numbers of Chileans, many of whom are unskilled and without formal education, to work outside of nationally recognized businesses. The unregulated nature of this under-the-table work has worsened the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the University of Chile, the salaries of workers have fallen by 60% since the beginning of the pandemic.
Before the recent economic and health crises, the national economy of Chile was greatly improving. Levels of poverty within the country had greatly diminished, from almost 40% to 9% since 1990, the last year of the military dictatorship. Nevertheless, the swift devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has raised the poverty level in the country to almost 15% since last year.
Covid-19 and Hunger
This decline in income and increased levels of poverty have been matched by increasing food scarcity and hunger in Chile. Many local markets in Chile’s more impoverished and isolated areas have been forced to close due to both government-mandated social distancing restrictions and high levels of debt among the country’s lower class. The dire need to bring home food to their families has forced many Chileans to continue to work despite pandemic conditions, disproportionately increasing their exposure to the virus.
Beyond the rising cost of food and living in Chile, the recent social restrictions and rising unemployment due to the virus have left hundreds of thousands of Chileans in danger of hunger. Families’ lack of income as well as their increased difficulty providing food point to the development of a hunger crisis in the country. The economic impact of the coronavirus has had a particularly great effect on lower-class citizens living near the capital who work in informal and unregistered jobs. Many critics of the Chilean government’s response to the pandemic and economic crisis point out that its proposed stimulus package, which includes millions of food baskets to be distributed to the hardest-hit areas, would be largely insufficient to tackle the ever-increasing problem of hunger.
In 2019, widespread protests erupted in Chile for a variety of reasons, mainly related to the increased cost of living and rising income inequality in the country. These protests marked the first time since the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s that the Chilean Army had entered into Santiago to maintain order. Although protests initially broke out in response to a hike in the metro fare in Chile’s capital city, most people agree that Chile’s past macroeconomic policies have laid the groundwork for the current economic situation.
Income Inequality and Neoliberal Economics in Chile
A major factor that has contributed to the ongoing anti-government protests in Chile is the staggering income inequality present within the country. Although the popular protests against the government of Sebastián Piñera began in 2019, the socioeconomic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shutdown have greatly exacerbated the poverty and income inequality in Chile.
The country’s stark income inequality can trace its origin to the Pinochet regime. During the military dictatorship, various neoliberal economists from the United States were invited to Chile to help modernize and revitalize the national economy.
Although the effects of this neoliberal approach have greatly expanded the economy of the country as a whole, most of this new wealth was heavily centralized with the majority of Chileans still facing grave economic and health-related conditions. Although Chile boasts the fourth largest economy in South America with a registered nominal GDP of approximately $300 billion in 2018, the distribution of wealth within the country tells a very different story. According to the CIA World Factbook, Chile has the fifteenth highest level of income inequality in the world, ahead of both China and the United States when measured with the Gini index.
Effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Chilean Poverty
Like in many other countries worldwide, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting national lockdown have greatly exacerbated the high levels of poverty and income inequality already present in Chile. Despite Chile’s overall economic success and complex healthcare system, the country has one of the highest infection rates per capita in the Western Hemisphere with 13,000 cases for every 1 million citizens. In comparison to similarly-sized economies in South America, Chile’s rate of infection is 10 times that of Argentina and twice that of Brazil, making it one of the most hard-hit countries on the planet.
The presence and spread of Covid-19 in the country are highly related to the preexisting level of income inequality in Chile. A large majority of new cases can be traced to the highly impoverished areas surrounding the capital of Santiago. Like other low-income areas in 2020, many of its residents are essential workers and unable to quarantine if they are to continue earning enough to pay for food and other necessary resources. This phenomenon of lower-income citizens facing increased exposure to the coronavirus due to their inability to stay home from work is not unique to Chile but is also occurring in many other economies across the globe.
Improving Conditions for Hungry Chileans
One group working to address the problem of hunger in Chile during the Covid-19 pandemic is Desafío Levantemos Chile, an NGO which aims to aid hundreds of Chileans by distributing food, providing microloans and housing projects, and advocating for public education reform. The group’s healthcare work has proven to be indispensable during the pandemic. The organization has worked to distribute testing kits and personal protection equipment to rural areas of the country and has also supported local hospitals and frontline workers through crowdfunding. Since its founding in 2011, Desafío Levantemos Chile has provided primary medical care to over 185,000 Chileans.
Many of the factors related to the high levels of poverty, income inequality, and hunger in Chile are endemic to the country’s socioeconomic and political status quo. The effects of the neoliberal push of the late 1980s have created a stark division of wealth and resources in the country. The austere policies of the Piñera government have incited civil unrest, which the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. As in many other countries around the globe, and especially in South America, the lingering effects of this difficult year will continue to create economic hardships for many ordinary and impoverished people well into the future.
– Jason Beck