UMass Boston Professor Becomes Leading Voice on COVID-19 Crisis in Chile
As he traveled to Santiago, Chile in March to set up an art exhibition and coordinating disaster research, Gonzalo Bacigalupe fully expected to be on a return flight back to Boston after the spring break. But immediately after arriving, he knew he would be staying — and quarantining — for a long time.
“ I feel responsible for bringing dignity to the discourse and for people to have full access to all the information. ”
Now more than six months into quarantine, Bacigalupe has become a leading voice on the COVID-19 pandemic in Chile.
The professor of counseling and school psychology at UMass Boston and renowned disaster resilience activist and researcher has appeared on Chilean national radio, television, podcasts, and print and online publications on a daily basis questioning the government's strategy in managing the coronavirus. Follow his updates on Twitter.
“Personally, I never thought I would be in the place I’m in right now. At least once or twice a day I go on the radio or TV or have a column,” Bacigalupe said. “I get asked opinions. I became sort of a political figure, which is totally nuts because it’s not something that I was expecting to happen.”
Bacigalupe is part of an emerging grassroots network of public health professionals, social scientists, and experts mobilizing to change the COVID-19 strategy and prevent further disaster in the South American country. They’re up against a government who they say is more interested in controlling the population than controlling the pandemic.
He has been traveling between Boston and Santiago since 2015 as a researcher, spending most of the summers (winter in the South hemisphere) doing fieldwork in vulnerable territories, researching on disaster risk reduction education and governance.
“I feel responsible for bringing dignity to the discourse and for people to have full access to all the information,” he said. “We are always checking data and seeing where the government may be distorting it.”
Chile has one of the highest global death rates, with an estimated 58.28 deaths per 100,000 population, higher than Brazil’s 55.05 deaths. It has more than 400,000 cases and nearly 11,000 deaths. Per CDC guidelines, Chile is in Phase 3 of the outbreak— meaning risk is high.
And Bacigalupe sees the social unrest facing Chile as similar to the recent events in the U.S.
The referendum to decide whether to change the constitution established under the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet — a symbol of long-rooted inequality for many — was due to be voted on in April but was postponed until October due to the pandemic. Bacigalupe says the pandemic has further emphasized the deep inequalities in Chile.
“As in the U.S., we are facing a sort of distorted hermetic and authoritarian central government and thus the pandemic is about politics,” Bacigalupe said. “We also here in Chile have elections as in the U.S., and they are both not only about new authorities but the destiny of the country. On October 25 the country will have a plebiscite to decide if a new constitution needs to be written. At the center of this, I feel privileged, accountable to people as a scientist but also as a person worried about the preventable suffering.”
Bacigalupe said he’s developed a tight net of support with other scientists, multidisciplinary experts, and communication professionals as they process information and data, but also act together to challenge the authority and invite collaboration.
“We have been able to meet with the minister of health, the senate, the house of representatives, party leaders of all kind,” he said. “I have also personally reached out to all sorts of social organizations and community leaders— women organizing communal pots, regional and city leaders needing to make visible abandoned places.”
Despite being a sought-after media expert, Bacigalupe has only been out of his apartment a few times since March, helping his parents and visiting a television studio on occasion.
“I am exhausted by now,” he said.
Last month Bacigalupe started a new position as a research associate at CreaSur, Universidad de Concepción, where he plans to develop projects related to disaster resilience, climate crisis, and health in the territorial context, and hopefully collaborate with UMass Boston and other institutions. He will also be teaching remotely at UMass Boston's College of Education and Human Development this fall.
Bacigalupe is researching with several teams in the U.S. about the impact of COVID-19 on families and communities, health equity, trauma, and the climate crisis. He contributed to the recent Gastón Institute report, COVID-19 and Latinos in Massachusetts, and he coauthored another report, COVID‐19 Interconnectedness: Health Inequity, the Climate Crisis, and Collective Trauma.
“I also have a strong commitment to questions of environmental justice and health and racial equity,” he said. “All of these are connected and somehow the pandemic is at the intersection of all of them.”
Bacigalupe had studied psychology and family therapy, but after witnessing the earthquakes in Haiti and Concepción in the same year, he began to broaden his focus to disaster resilience. He had always been interested in thinking of how people recover, how they use knowledge to survive and plan.
Bacigalupe says a virus does not have to lead to disaster.
“Now is the time to start choosing and designing a country that protects its people from biological threats and disease in the same way that we build buildings capable of withstanding the earthquakes that frequently strike us,” Bacigalupe wrote in La Voz De Los Que Sobran. “Pandemics are going to be with us, disaster does not have to be here again.”
According to him, this is not so different in his two home countries, the U.S. and Chile.