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'Total' lockdown for Chile capital after virus spike

A man walks past a pharmacy where COVID-19 tests are conducted in  Santiago, Chile
A man walks past a pharmacy where COVID-19 tests are conducted in Santiago, Chile MARTIN BERNETTI AFP
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Santiago (AFP)

Chile ordered a mandatory total quarantine for the capital Santiago's seven million people Wednesday after authorities reported a 60 percent spike in coronavirus infections in 24 hours, dealing a stunning blow to hopes the economy would soon reopen.

"The most severe measure I must announce is a total quarantine in Greater Santiago," the location of 80 percent of the country's 34,000-plus confirmed cases, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

Manalich said the lockdown -- including in several areas where earlier confinement measures had been lifted -- was necessary after 2,260 new infections and 12 deaths in the last 24 hours.

The announcement follows a government request to the IMF for a flexible line of credit amounting to around $23.8 billion for the next two years.

The credit line would help kickstart the economy after months of mass protests against the government of President Sebastian Pinera, a bodyblow to state revenues exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

- 'Battle of Santiago' -

The lockdown -- which come into force on Friday at 10:00 pm (0200 GMT Saturday) -- means that people will be allowed to leave their homes only for essential reasons like buying food or medicine.

Chile had until now opted for a selective quarantine strategy in dealing with the pandemic. Curfews were imposed in Santiago and other cities, but quarantines were limited to areas with high incidences of infection.

Chile also has Latin America's highest rate of coronavirus testing -- 14,000 a day and around 200,000 overall.

However, the government had been increasingly concerned about rising infection numbers across the city of seven million people in the past 10 days, and last week ordered strict new confinement measures in three densely populated areas.

Health workers reported growing rates of infection in early May, just after the conservative government celebrated the fact that infections had "peaked," citing a persistent daily rate of around 500 new cases.

Within a few days, however, officials began to speak of "The Battle of Santiago."

"The month of May is being hard on our country and we have to take appropriate actions at the right time to stop this disease," Manalich said.

He added that the health system was able to cope, as deaths remain low, with 347 from COVID-19 since March 3.

Health authorities said the South American country had 553 ventilators available as of Wednesday, and more units would be added in the coming days.

The minister also announced that the government was imposing a mandatory quarantine on people over 75 years of age in the northern cities of Iquique and Alto Hospicio.

The government responded quickly to the first cases on March 3, introducing a nationwide curfew and selective quarantines on areas with high incidences of the virus.

Schools, universities and businesses were closed as part of social distancing measures and transport restricted.

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