Coronavirus drives away protesters from emblematic protest plaza in Chile


By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda and Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO, Mar 20 (Reuters) – For the past five months, Plaza Italia has become every Friday the capital’s stronghold of the social protests that erupted in Chile calling for better pensions, health, education, among other demands.

But on Friday, the gazebo looked little crowded as the inhabitants of Santiago left the streets for fear of being infected with the coronavirus, which already affects more than 400 people in the country.

“We knew that fewer people would come but we are still resisting here,” said José Miguel, a 37-year-old protester under the plaza monument, who was protesting with a small group of young people, some wearing medical masks and others with their faces covered in hoods.

In the nearby streets, fewer police crews were posted than usual while traffic flowed normally around the usually convulsed sector.

During the first days of March, the protests regained their strength in the square after the summer holidays, leaving violent clashes with the police.

But with the rapid increase in coronavirus cases and although the authorities have so far ruled out decreeing a general quarantine, schools, universities, shopping centers, restaurants and cinemas have been closed, leaving the streets increasingly empty.

“I don’t know if the coronavirus ended the protests but this is definitely a life-saving thing. We support the cause but first you have to be alive and then we keep trying to change the world,” said Enrique Cruz, who has a beverage sale and goodies near the square.

The constant calls for protests on social networks have been gradually replaced by COVID-19 contagion prevention messages and funny images about the epidemic.

The protests, initially sparked by a rise in the price of transport, have left at least 31 dead, thousands detained and extensive material damage.

(By Natalia Ramos and Fabián Andrés Cambero. Edited by Rodrigo Charme)