Monday, 26 Jul 2021

COVID-19 in the Atacama Desert

Benjamín López Díaz

‘’When will all this end?’’ Since March, that’s the question that starts most conversations here in my small hometown in Chile. It seems to be that the pandemic has become almost the only topic to talk about.

After discussing how COVID-19 has affected the world, someone will often say: “At least we are lucky to be far away from the danger of the bigger cities’’ or something like ‘’Our region is the one with fewer cases of coronavirus.” That was usually the end of the conversation until this global emergency arrived in our little sun-drenched paradise.

I am from a little copper mining town called El Salvador with 7000 inhabitants in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Initially, because of our distance from any other city, we were not very afraid of coronavirus: apart from wearing face masks and trying to practice social distancing, our daily life did not change a lot. Taking a walk around the town on our super-wide and circular-shaped streets, you were still able to see people in downtown enjoying the main (and almost only) green areas of the town in our Republic Square, taking photos of the giant ‘’El Salvador’’ sign, watching spectacular sunsets between the colorful desertic mountains which surround us, visiting the old Catholic parish or using the only public transportation available: a few black and yellow taxis.

This carefree attitude toward the global pandemic was held until May arrived: inside our mine, the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed and now there are so many workers with their families in preventive quarantine. Even though a relevant number of workers are considered floating population – a concerning situation since they are constantly traveling from and to El Salvador – the majority of the people are somehow connected with the mine, its labs, the refinery or the concentrator plant: that means we are not talking only about miners, but also heavy equipment operators, buses and trucks drivers, engineers, occupational safety and health officials, supervisors, geologists, surveyors, welders, millwrights, electricians, clerks and other workers who represent almost the half of our town’s population. That’s why now most people are barely coming out from their houses, many stores have been closed, our two schools stopped functioning, and the town’s related social media is going crazy.

Before all this happened, you were able to have a positive perspective and fear was not part of our daily lives. Now, conversations start with “Do you know the infected people?” or “Have you heard about all the people who are quarantined?,” followed by a discussion about everything that the government and CODELCO (the National Copper Corporation of Chile) are doing wrong, and finish off with a “We are all screwed.”

With the advent of June, the communicative behavior has not changed a lot between us, mainly because the coverage of our local situation with COVID-19 has been extremely limited; triggering posts and fake news in regional social media have become recurrent: false confirmed SARS-CoV-2 cases or deaths, made up lockdown start dates, and fictitious ways to ‘’kill the virus’’ are the most recurrent topics of misinforming content.  

Even though in the Chilean mainstream and traditional media (which are financed by international conglomerates and big companies owned by powerful politicians and their relatives) it is easy to find updated information about the pandemic, most of the data shown has to do with what is happening in Santiago (Chile’s capital) and in other major cities as Concepción, Viña del Mar or Valparaíso. Because of this, people lack information about their local communities, and a damaging erroneous perception about the real situation in small towns is created.

Here, we can witness the spread of misinformation by the way that people have engaged in excessive grocery buying in our only supermarket, and in several reported attacks to the property where people who have tested positive for COVID-19 live or are staying during the pertinent quarantine. Besides, some people believe that some of the measures applied by the government in Santiago are also in force here and many others are sharing fake news which, depending on their content, lead people to over or under-react to the ongoing health emergency.

Furthermore, the centralized government authorities’ response and approach for dealing with this crisis has also not changed: they are still being inefficient in halting the contagions, and it seems to be that COVID-19 is arriving at every corner of our territory. Nationwide, cases are increasing worryingly: we are starting June with more than 100,000 cases and 1113 deaths.

Moreover, medical and statistical experts predict that even with taking strong actions against the emergency, during June all these figures will be higher compared to past months and that the collapse of the health system is imminent. Such as during the 2019 massive protests and riots against the outrageous inequality, the State’s structural violence, and the unaffordable and rising cost of living, the authorities are miserably failing at addressing these pre-existent social issues that are being intensified by the pandemic. As the icing on the cake, throughout the country, unemployment has reached historical figures, and, as a result, there have been several protests since people are literally starving.    

In our town’s particular case, coronavirus cases have increased, but nothing has been done for counteracting the upcoming local health emergency. The lack of agreement between the congress and the presidency, the slow action of provincial state institutions due to bureaucracy, the generalized distrust in authorities, and the nonexistence of local news coverage are leaving small towns – such as El Salvador – completely forgotten and unprotected.

In addition to what has been outlined above, CODELCO’s intransigency has been shown in their decision to keep the mine in operation despite all health risks for their workers. Notwithstanding the few health and safety measures that have been implemented for trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside the mining company, such as the mandatory use of masks, hiring more transportation buses for avoiding agglomeration, and the replacement of the 7-days and 8 daily hours of work shift to a 14-days and 12 daily hours shift for reducing the flow of people (a polemic measure because of the excessive amount of continuous working time), it seems that money and copper production are more important than keeping human lives.

It feels like we are living in an old dramatic movie: every day in the principal avenue, the only people out there are the miners wearing chunky security equipment and waiting for the buses that will take them to the mine: they are forced to work in order to not lose their jobs and to feed their families.

Are the media, the government, and the mining company just letting us to our own devices for dealing with a global pandemic? Have they decided to address this emergency like this here, just because we are a small town in the middle of the desert?

Well, it seems to be that we are not the only small city that is facing this neglect. All preventive measures and social aids are focused in major urban centers, while rural areas and small towns are being left high and dry and categorized as low priority sectors. No lockdown or other preventive measures have been ordered, State´s aid arrives late or does not arrive at all, and the lack of resources and inefficiency of the sub-metropolitan public health centers are being ignored by the government.

Overwhelmed: that’s a perfect term to describe how we are feeling now. All of our feeling of safety has been destroyed by a reality check that maybe we all needed. It would appear that when you are not part of the elite and they are not interested in who you are or where you live, you just have to rely on yourself for overcoming any hardship.

Especially during hard times like this one, we as a society need those who take the important decisions — those who have the power to save us or kill us – to stop focusing on their personal benefit/profit and start caring about their voters, their workers: their neighbors.

At the end of the day, without us, they would be no one. Fortunately, it seems like after the day “when all this will end” finally comes, people will not forget how the ones in charge have turned their backs on them.

Benjamín López Díaz was born and raised in the last remaining mining camp in the world: El Salvador, Chile. Even though he grew up far away from the rest of the world, from a young age he was curious about other cultures and always loved to experience new things. That’s why his favorite thing to do is to travel anywhere enjoying the fascinating human diversity.  

 Photo by author.