We are ending 2021, it is the last day already, and the world is still in its second year of pandemic and very probably during 2022 this context of global pandemic will be prolonged even more – worldwide. We wanted to interview Tomás Hirsch, Chilean MP for the Acción Humanista movement, to find out his assessment – both at the global and national level – of the major successes and the major mistakes that have been made in the year that is coming to an end.
Tomás Hirsch: First of all, greetings to all those who read us at Pressenza in this intense change of year from 2021 to 2022, which I would categorise as the year of hope. On a global level, on a national level, on the level of our deputation and also on a personal level. The year of hope, definitely. That’s how I experience it.
On a global level there are two very relevant issues. Politically, in 2021 there has been a reversal of extreme right-wing fundamentalism, with the defeat of Trump, which, although it occurs at the end of 2020, it is at the beginning of 2021 that Biden takes office, which we are not going to say is the most advanced progressivism on the planet, but that is why I highlight the end of the Trump era, which ended in a scandalous, grotesque and rude way.
With the end of the Trump era, those extreme right-wing fundamentalisms are also beginning to recede, and although some are still present, a progressive proposal is recovering in many parts of the world and that, for me, is an important symptom of this year.
But on a general level, it seems to me that the most remarkable thing about this year is that – in relation to the pandemic – 2021 begins in a situation of brutal insecurity regarding the future, at the beginning of this year, we were still immersed in the worst moments of the pandemic, with an impressive mortality rate, with a disease out of control in many countries of the world, with health services collapsed, waiting for scientific progress to be made to be able to have a vaccine. In record time for the history of humanity, a vaccine was obtained and at the beginning of this year it began to be applied. It now seems to be part of our lives, when in fact it began this year. And in a period of so few months billions of people have been vaccinated and it seems to me that the pandemic, although still present, although the virus continues to mutate, we are clearly in a very different situation. Human beings and science have managed to control this pandemic and that is very significant. There are still many problems, but in one year, humanity has stopped something that used to take two hundred years, three hundred years in the case of the Black Death or thirty years in the case of the most recent Spanish flu at the beginning of the 20th century. So, the truth is that this is a very impressive advance.
Pressenza: And in this context of science, the pandemic, vaccines, what would you say about Chile specifically?
Tomás Hirsch: In Chile there was a spectacular response in the field of health, not in terms of alleviating social suffering, but in terms of health systems and services, of health personnel, in terms of dealing with an almost unmanageable demand, with saturated health services, they managed to respond. And secondly, the response of the Chilean population to the vaccination process was also very powerful. The government and the health system were timely in this regard and ensured that vaccines were available very quickly and in enormous quantities.
Undoubtedly, relations with China were fundamental in this area. There were also almost anecdotal issues, such as the presence of a Chilean scientist who was specifically linked to Sinovac, the contribution made by some universities to the initial process, where the government – it must be said – did not provide resources, but the relationship with China and the rapid response, the capacity to anticipate that allowed contracts to be signed with various vaccine suppliers from the outset.
That is one part, but the second part has been the response of the public. We know that in some parts of the world, Europe for example, there are massive anti-vaccine movements that are causing tremendous damage. I take a position on this. It seems to me that they are causing tremendous damage because they are preventing good control of the pandemic, which is a disease that kills, that causes irreparable damage to hundreds of thousands of affected families. Here in Chile, there has been a massive and majority response to go to vaccination voluntarily, not only for the two initial doses but also for the third booster dose and we are one of the first countries that is already planning – for next February – a fourth dose. Right now, in these very days, hundreds of thousands of people are going – aware that they have a certain deadline – to the vaccination centres.
Pressenza: It is in this context that the medical figure of the President of the Medical Association, Dr Izkia Siches, emerges as a reference point. ….
Tomás Hirsch: Well, Izkia was very clear in her position of promoting the vaccination process and not only that, but also quarantines, the use of masks, care, social distance, maintaining very clear protocols, etc. From this point of view, she even confronted the government many times and time proved her right in everything she said. And that is what made her a social reference even beyond medicine, to such an extent that she ended up as Gabriel Boric’s Campaign Manager for the ballot at the end of December and was a key factor in his triumph as President-elect and is now one of the political coordinators of the future government. In other words, this is where an impressive leadership emerges, with a very open future projection, based on her clear orientations in relation to how to respond to this pandemic. We can see the extent to which the pandemic and the appropriate responses are linked to the construction of new leaderships. We are talking about the youngest President of the Health Guild in the history of that guild, a woman who has just become a mother for the first time, very young, a contemporary of Gabriel Boric and many of the other student leaders of a few years ago, forming part of this new generation.
Pressenza: The pandemic also highlights – as if it were a magnifying glass – all the deficiencies of the neo-liberal system, the global environmental crisis, the cascades of crises to which UN Secretary General Guterres alludes, which are currently occurring in the world. How do you see this magnifying glass factor and this sensation that the pandemic places us – as a hinge – between a world that is leaving and another that we still don’t know what it will be like?
Tomás Hirsch: Indeed, the pandemic, which is above all a tragedy because of the number of deaths it has generated, is also an opportunity to reflect on our own lives, both individually and socially. It has exposed a system in which health is a business, in which certain countries have all the privileges to respond to this alarm, while others – even entire continents – are simply invisible with respect to the crises that are affecting them, and which are certainly not only due to the pandemic, but are humanitarian crises, food crises, water crises, as is happening in Africa and in a large part of Latin America. The pandemic is stronger evidence and highlights the inequity of a neo-liberal model that has been in place for more than 30 years in a large part of the planet. It is not only an economic model, it is political, social, cultural, it is a system that concentrates tremendous power in a few hands, all forms of power. It is a system that is in crisis. And the pandemic simply shows that this system is not able to respond to the needs of human beings.
Pressenza: And in what sense is this crisis an opportunity?
Tomás Hirsch: It is an opportunity in the sense that as a result of this reflection, new answers emerge. Philosophers were the first. I was struck by the fact that many thinkers and philosophers, already in April or May 2020, were reflecting on the social environment, on the answers, not only on the pandemic, on the problem of life and death, on what it means to take care of ourselves individually or socially. This then translated into opinion columns, reflections, debates at other levels of society, in the feminist world, in the world of the population, in the world of small and medium-sized enterprises that were affected by the pandemic. Although I have not seen major changes with respect to the model, I do believe that these reflections are working and we have to understand that they take time to become effective, they are things that cannot be measured in one’s vital times and decree that next year the system will end. Processes are not like that. But new perspectives are beginning to open up, and this is modifying entire structures.
The fact that currently feminism, the struggle for diversity, environmentalism, the struggles of the new generations, animalism and others, are issues that are emerging at a time when the traditional way of seeing the world is being questioned and the pandemic, it seems to me that with its quarantines, being locked up, led us to look at ourselves and to look at who was next to us, to discover that communication cannot be only in terms of what we are going to consume next week, that is quickly exhausted. Communication is necessarily constructed on the basis of projects and meanings of life and this is present, it is present in many people, perhaps it still does not have a political-social expression at a global level, but it is very present.
Political changes are also taking place. In the United States, Trump, who was a pandemic denier, an anti-vaccine, an opponent of science, is losing. In Chile, Kast, who denied science as the vanguard of these processes, denied the climate crisis, is losing.
Photo by Hernán Gacitúa
Pressenza: And in Chile, how do you explain what happened? A very short time ago, when it was being defined who was going to be the candidate of the sector in which you participate, the most progressive and newest, in that sector the more traditional left
had – let’s say – more strength. A few months ago, almost like a liquid that seeped through the formal frameworks, this new leadership began to emerge. How do you see this new leadership that has made it possible to win the elections here?
Tomás Hirsch: Nowadays social processes are unpredictable. They cannot be planned or foreseen. Boric’s pre-candidacy, let’s remember, arose as an option to compete in a primary with Jadue, who was seen as the sure candidate of this world. However, unexpectedly, Gabriel Boric won that primary, in a resounding manner. Then came the first round and finally the run-off, in which Gabriel Boric did not exactly win…
Pressenza: What wins there?
Tomás Hirsch: I think what wins there is a sensibility, a generation, a world that is looking to open up and express the need to move in a new direction. This goes beyond people, it’s as if there were a process, a kind of evolutionary intention, a dynamic that advances and opens up.
Somehow, I connect it with what was the Chilean social awakening in 2019, and that with what happened in 2011, and before that with the Penguins and so on… it is as if there is something that is seeking to break through and that is not disconnected from a long process
It seems to me that the triumph of Gabriel Boric is the triumph of that intention in favor of the creation of other living conditions. The word “dignity” comes very strongly to my mind: the Plaza de la Dignidad, that search that is not exactly for a specific demand…
Pressenza: An awakening?
Tomás Hirsch: It is an awakening. It has to do with a new way of doing politics, it has to do with a new way of dealing with people, a new valuing of people. It reminds me of Silo saying that every human being is very valuable, you are not a number, you are not an ant.
Internationally it connects with many movements. One of the worst things we are facing is the environmental crisis, but also something that we are very happy about is the movement – especially of the new generations – to fight for effective measures right now to stop climate change. It is putting pressure on countries, it is putting pressure on the powerful, it is forcing the closure of power plants, the end of coal, the end of fossil fuel vehicles. While these are issues that may take years, there is clearly among young people a conviction, a commitment, an understanding that the future is in their hands.
Going back to Gabriel’s victory and what ends up happening here, it is an expression of hope. It opened up the possibility of building a different country.
Pressenza: It is a generation with a lot of courage, that has decided to take charge, isn’t it?
Tomás Hirsch: I think that this phenomenon that is happening, putting us in a situation of leading the country by skipping a generation, and going from a 72-year-old president with his generation in power, to transfer it to those who are 30 years old, the generation of our children, and skipping those who are between 35 and 60 years old, skipping a whole generation, also reminds me of Silo’s reflection that it will be the new generations that will show us the way. It is not a question, therefore, of the triumph of one person in particular, but of a generation that has the daring, the audacity, the conviction and decides to take the future into its own hands.
Pressenza: What other big – positive – issue in Chile did you see this year?
Tomás Hirsch: Undoubtedly the installation of the Constitutional Convention that is drafting a new Constitution and is doing so with democratically elected members for the first time in our history, with a gender parity composition, for the first time in world history, and also with quotas reserved for native peoples, for the first time. This fulfils the aspiration for which we humanists have been fighting for so many years. We threw Pinochet’s Constitution in the dustbin in 2005 and time proved us right, it was necessary to move towards the democratic drafting of a new founding charter and this is a fundamental milestone for the year 2021.
Pressenza: To close this balance of the year, on a very personal level, not as a parliamentarian, but in your life, what do you highlight as the best?
Tomás Hirsch: I would say that the most powerful thing has been the recognition of the social movements of the District that generated the re-election.
More personally…. my relationship with my granddaughters, discovering that space in life, little people who have burst in with their own questions, looks, fears, affections, and that amazes me, the feeling that a special and unique relationship is beginning to be built with each one of them.
I would also say that in a year as complex as this one, affectionate and personal relationships have been strengthened so much. With my partner, my children and their partners, with my siblings, to be able to deepen the relationships and affection we have for each other. This affection has been strengthened in the midst of the pandemic and this also reinforces hope for the human being.