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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Chile: Protect the campamentos!

By Camillo Boano, on 11 May 2020

Co-authored by Francisco Vergara Perucich and Camillo Boano

Part of our Post COVID-19 Urban Futures series.

The COVID-19 crisis caught us unprepared. We thought we would have been ready, with sufficient knowledge and expertise to make our cities safe and our planning effective. As Julio Davila recently suggested[1], the pandemic has exacerbated socio-economic inequalities around the world but has also forced us to re-centre our reflections on the infrastructures of care that connects bodies, places and projects[2]. A new (or renewed) urban question that places the fractured and decomposed character of vulnerability back into the core of the urban project and urban discourses; the ethical connotation of the link between body and space; the rethinking of the local outside any conservative shortcuts; and the need for new infrastructure of care that has the courage to bring us to other ways of acting and practicing[3]. All this requires a non-defensive but affirmative project in order to advance from the current perplexity to proactively address the issue of vulnerability from urban practices. This is a worldwide challenge about to begin.

The potential health impacts of COVID-19 on informal urbanisation and marginalised groups globally is immense but, as Wilkinson suggests[4], if control measures are poorly executed these could also have severe negative impacts. The priorities on effective control measures need to be developed with engaged communities and locally appropriate control strategies based on partnerships with local governments and authorities. The support to communities and inhabitants is fundamental to offering situated and relevant spatial and social infrastructures that bypass and complement the one-size-fits-all strategy of containment and lockdown, in a strong coordination with local governments, and directly investing in improved data for monitoring the response in informal settlements.  Our engagement with the specific reality of Chilean campamentos[5] is the centre of this report.

In the last ten years, the number of campamentos in Chile has increased by 22%, with the cities of Antofagasta, Calama, Iquique-Alto Hospicio, Copiapó, La Serena, Viña del Mar and Valparaíso being the most affected given the aggressive increase of people living in informal settlements. For these campamentos to face COVID-19, it is urgent to define the set of effective control measures to be taken before the worst occurs.

Figure 1. Cities where the number of campamentos increased the most in the last ten years in relation to the most vulnerable districts of each city. Source: Authors elaboration based on Vergara-Perucich et. al., 2020.

It is critical to see that campamentos in Chile are placed in the most vulnerable areas[6] regarding the hazard of COVID-19 outbreak (Figure 1). This adds to the problem of water access, especially considering that the most critical campamentos are located in the desert or areas affected by intense drought where rationing could also occur, as announced by the government at the end of 2019[7]. Therefore, in these communities, such a simple action as handwashing will be a challenge.

Thus, the campamentos may face a scenario similar to the one faced by London during the cholera outbreak in the middle of the nineteenth century. In this example on Broad Street in Soho (now Broadwick Street), the only water supply for an entire neighbourhood was a pump, which was identified as being responsible for more than 616 deaths in this small area of the city[8]. In this case, it was the water that was contaminated with bacteria, but in a campamento, it could be the interaction between neighbours when collecting the water or a tap that everyone shares as the sources of infection.

This issue of the water is only an example of how the lack of planning and preparedness in relation to the urban emergencies would hit on the most vulnerable communities. People can organise actions, but they also have to deal with the anguish produced by the conspicuous improvisation of the government. Unfortunately, one of the main problems facing campamento households is uncertainty about the immediate future.

Figure 2. Map of Soho indicating the number of deaths per block and the location of pumps. Source: John Snow (Johnson, 2006).

Regarding this uncertainty, Elizabeth Andrade, a community leader of the Los Arenales macro-campamento[9] in Antofagasta, says: “I am concerned about the conditions in general, and the little presence of the government. I just spoke with a neighbour who asked me for money because in a month, she runs out; now, one hears it as something normal. [I’m] seeing that and how the neighbours ask when they are going to vaccinate us.”[10] The problem in the campamento is serious, in large part due to abandonment and hesitant performance of local authorities in this case, where, in addition to socio-economic vulnerability, there is also the fact that many people are immigrants in a nation where xenophobia is on the rise. “There are things like the housing conditions or the families who have been harmed in their work by the crisis. The great majority have been fired. They used to work in restaurants and construction, activities that ceased because of the pandemic. There is also the issue that about 80 percent of the macro-slum are immigrants, so we feel that we are even more invisible than before”[11].

The government announced measures on water supply and emergency health kits which was read as a measure to keep people clean but not actually alleviate the challenging situation of living being a highly vulnerable population during one of the most aggressive planetary outbreaks since 1918[12]. It is concerning that other aspects that would give some certainty to the immigrant population, such as food and employment security, are not part of the government’s plans so far. In fact, the government is doing exactly the opposite. For instance, the 6th April 2020 the executive promulgated a legal body named “Law of protection of the employment due to COVID-19”[13] which allows employers to suspend hiring contracts and do not pay the salaries during the pandemic but allows the employees to keep their job positions. Protecting the companies and not the workers seems to be the motto of this measure.

We urge to the Chilean government to change the aim from companies to people. To contribute to this discussion, in relation to the immediate need to facilitate the successful implementation of sanitation measures in slums, here are some strategies based on diverse approaches that are already circulating in specialised literature[14] [15] [16]:


  1. Empowering local organisation of sanitation plans: This implies creating a temporary community-based institution to make emergency decisions where community leaders have direct articulation in decision-making with local authorities.
  2. Housing certainty: Ban evictions, shifting the aim of protecting the right to housing.
  3. Financial aid: Generate a payment guarantee bonus for campamento inhabitants, consisting of a minimum wage per worker, regardless of whether they were fired.
  4. Train community health assistants: Deploy specific training in respiratory care and preventive actions for the control and monitoring of measures to be implemented when a case is presented within the campamento. This training integrates the knowledge of protocols and key actions to take in case of respiratory symptoms in neighbours.
  5. Ensure access to water: This will require the investment in water supplies by the local government to distribute water supplies to each house in the campamento to facilitate the quarantine. This plan incorporates providing clean water, monitoring its use, and delivering sustainable education about water use in situations of scarcity.
  6. Provide food baskets: The local authority should deliver baskets of basic products that include food, soap, and cleaning supplies to each household. The possibility of including portable gas stoves should be considered to ensure that people can cook and boil water if needed.
  7. Create an emergency mobility plan: Considering the road-accessibility problems that many campamentos face, the community should coordinate with the sanitation authority to develop a plan to transport people suspected of being carriers of the pathogen.

To live in a campamento is to be subject to uncertainty. It means living day by day with mixed feelings of hope and anguish. The pandemic adds stress to everyone’s lives, but this stress is aggravated in situations of extreme scarcity. The virus can be even more lethal in these communities. More aggressive government measures are urgently needed to protect the people at risk, and many of those measures would rely on the organisational capacity of communities. Time is running out, and there is no room for speculation.

Different approaches around the globe are showing how the coordination between local authorities and communities for developing diverse and complex urban strategies are effective in the reduction of harm and also foster sense of collectiveness[17] that would lead to build a more permanent bottom-up culture in urban governance. The pandemic has served to contest the current social contract in the global south[18], which in the case of Chile is neoliberalism in its pure form. As an urban strategy is needed that is based on grassroot organisation, the principles of the right to the city seems as the incipient way to deliver effective solutions at the time a new social contract is at least practiced during the crisis.


[1] Julio D. Dávila, “Covid-19, Urban Mobility and Social Equity,” DPU Blog, 2020, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2020/05/04/covid-19-urban-mobility-and-social-equity/.

[2] Catalina Ortiz and Camillo Boano, “‘Stay at Home’: Housing as a Pivotal Infrastructure of Care?,” DPU Blog, 2020, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/dpublog/2020/04/06/stay-at-home-housing-as-a-pivotal-infrastructure-of-care/.

[3] Cristina Bianchetti, Camillo Boano, and Antonio di Campi, “Quarantine Urbanism, La Mutazione Che Viviamo e Pensiamo in Ritardo,” Il Giornale Dell’Architettura, 2020, https://inchieste.ilgiornaledellarchitettura.com/quarantine-urbanism-la-mutazione-che-viviamo-e-pensiamo-in-ritardo/?fbclid=IwAR0qouXP4N9lphBedhsSPZe-SNY8OD7aIDjf1khg32A1nqwP_R3OvikhoGk.

[4] Annie Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements,” 2020, 1–20, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247820922843.

[5] Campamentos is the name given in Chile to informal settlements. The direct translation is camps.

[6] José-Francisco Vergara-Perucich, Juan Correa, and Carlos Aguirre-Núñez, Atlas de Indicadores Espaciales de Vulnerabilidad Ante El COVID-19 En Chile (Santiago: Centro Producción del Espacio, 2020).

[7] CNN, “La Mega Sequía Podría Ocasionar Racionamiento de Agua Antes de Lo Esperado,” CNN Chile, 2020, https://www.cnnchile.com/pais/la-mega-sequia-podria-ocasionar-racionamiento-de-agua-antes-de-lo-esperado_20200105/.

[8] Steven Johnson, THE GHOST MAP (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006).

[9] Macro-campamento is the definition for an informal settlement where are two or more campamentos.

[10] Nataliao Figueroa, “Sobreviviendo Al Coronavirus En Un Campamento: La Vida de Los Contagiados Más Abandonados de La Pandemia | El Desconcierto,” El Desconcierto2, 2020, https://www.eldesconcierto.cl/2020/04/25/hacinados-y-con-agua-limitada-la-cruda-realidad-de-los-contagiados-por-covid-19-en-campamentos/.

[11] Andrea Bustos, “‘El Encierro Se Mezcla Con Hambre’: La Preocupante Realidad de Los ‘Invisibles’ Campamentos de Antofagasta « Diario y Radio U Chile,” diario Uchile, April 23, 2020, https://radio.uchile.cl/2020/04/23/el-encierro-se-mezcla-con-hambre-la-preocupante-realidad-de-los-invisibles-campamentos-de-antofagasta/.

[12] J N Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics. Their Impacts on Human History (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio, 2005).

[13] MINISTERIO DEL TRABAJO Y PREVISIÓN SOCIAL, “Ley de Proteccion Al Empleo Por COVID-19” (2020).

[14] Jason Corburn et al., “Slum Health: Arresting COVID-19 and Improving Well-Being in Urban Informal Settlements,” Journal of Urban Health, April 24, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-020-00438-6.

[15] Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements.”

[16] Diana Mitlin, “Dealing with COVID-19 in the Towns and Cities of the Global South,” IIED, 2020, https://www.iied.org/dealing-covid-19-towns-cities-global-south.

[17] Wilkinson, “Local Response in Health Emergencies : Key Considerations for Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Informal Urban Settlements.”

[18] Mitlin, “Dealing with COVID-19 in the Towns and Cities of the Global South.”

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