COVID-19 in ChileChile is a small, narrow country in South America blessed with magnificent mountains and gorgeous Pacific Ocean views that attract tourists from all over the world. The World Bank estimates that Chile has a higher life expectancy than the United States and classifies it as a high-income country despite its many impoverished regions. Like many other countries, however, Chile has experienced substantial economic distress in the wake of COVID-19 due to the high infection rates. In fact, Chile has one of the highest COVID-19 rates in the world with more than 364,000 confirmed cases as of 5 August 2020 in a population of only 18.7 million. Fortunately, in an effort to quickly recover from the crisis, the National Police formulated an unconventional, yet clever plan to combat COVID-19 in Chile.

Poverty & COVID-19 in Chile

Confirmed cases in Chile have steadily risen since May, beginning in high-income neighborhoods and slowly infiltrating low-income communities where the virus has caused the most damage.  The country has remained under a national state of emergency since mid-March and is now experiencing Phase 4 of the outbreak, which includes “uncontrolled and widespread community transmission,” forced quarantine in some areas and even a nationwide curfew. The Chilean government closed the country’s borders on 18 March 2020 to all tourists, cruise ships and other unnecessary traffic, excluding citizens and permanent residents who must be quarantined for 14 days upon re-entrance.

Tourism prevention has been particularly harmful to Chile’s economy since the country shut down in March. The country was named the 2017 Best Destination for Adventure Tourism in the World with more than 5.6 million people visiting each year, a group that has consistently stimulated the economy by nearly 13% annually. Jorge Rodriguez, Chile’s Minister of Economy, Development and Tourism stresses that tourism “is strategic for the growth of Chile,”  but COVID-19 is decelerating the progress tourism has made in the last decade.

The World Bank identifies Chile as one of Latin America’s “most unequal countries” because there are two socioeconomic extremes: incredibly impoverished or wonderfully wealthy. There is no middle class, forcing socioeconomic status to determine whether a person hopelessly struggles under government dependence or flourishes in their own monetary independence. Because people living in poverty must rely on assistance from the government, poor Chileans are suffering now more than ever as COVID-19 devastates the economy.

Retrievers to the Rescue

Luckily, the Chilean government, in partnership with the Catholic University of Chile, has constructed a strategic recovery plan that relies on retrievers. Chile’s National Police has embarked on a journey to teach K-9s to find COVID-19 in crowds. Three highly trained pups, with experience in drug and bomb detection, are learning to sniff out human odors specifically emitted by prospective patients.  COVID-19 itself does not have an odor, but minor metabolic changes can be detected as well as “volatile organic compounds” according to Fernando Mardones, professor and epidemiologist at the Catholic University of Chile. Those distinct markers enable the K-9s to intelligently track and discover people who are either asymptomatic or just entering the earliest stages of infection. Once a target is located, the “bio-detector dogs” do not scratch or use their killer bites. They simply sit by the COVID-19 carrier for discrete identification that prevents panic.

K-9s to Conquer COVID-19

The program currently remains in pilot stages but should be fully implemented by mid-September where the K-9s will be immediately deployed to high population centers. By the end of the training, one K-9 will be able to search more than 250 people in one hour with more than 95% accuracy. After the K-9s successfully memorize how to detect the virus in humans and remove COVID-19 patients from densely populated areas, confirmed case numbers in Chile should steadily decline. The country will then be able to reopen its ports and borders. Reestablishing its rightful place as one of the world’s most sought after tourism destinations will allow the economy to heal as travelers renew their plans to enjoy Chile’s beautiful scenery and exhilarating adventure sites.

Economic stability boosted by tourism revitalization will ease the concerns of people in poverty because the government will return to adequately assisting low-income regions as it did before COVID-19. Hopefully, extinguishing the virus in Chile will begin to bridge the gap between the country’s seemingly untouchable upper class and its disadvantaged lower class, giving impoverished people a chance to thrive.

-Natalie Clark
Photo: Unsplash