If you look at the data on vaccine rollouts across Latin America, there’s one clear outlier: Chile. The country has vaccinated just over 12% of its population, putting it just behind the US and well ahead of all of its neighbors, according to national figures compiled by Our World in Data.
Chile started out with a few advantages. It doesn’t have a massive population like China (there are just 19 million Chileans) or a vast, impenetrable landmass like Russia or Brazil. It’s a relatively wealthy nation, with a seat among the mostly rich countries of the OECD. But, as Chilean international relations researcher Veronica Diaz-Cerda points out, Chile is not so well-off that it couldn’t negotiate lower prices from vaccine manufacturers.
Chile also made a few key decisions—both in the short- and long-term—that put it in a position to outperform other countries with comparable population sizes, geographies, and economic standing.
In fact, it has the eighth best vaccination rate in the world, among countries with populations above 100,000. (A handful of small island nations—like Seychelles, the Cayman Islands, and Bermuda—have it beat.)
Which raises the question: What did Chile get right that so many of its peers haven’t figured out?
First, it inked early deals with several vaccine manufacturers, including China’s Sinopharm, US-based Pfizer, and British AstraZeneca. Chile has now ordered enough doses to vaccinate its population twice.
“Our strategy does not rely only on one vaccine, so that gave the country a wider variety of options to vaccinate,” said Juan Carlos Said, an internal medicine specialist at Hospital Sótero del Río, outside Santiago. “We signed those deals early during the pandemic, so we received the vaccines earlier than other countries.”
He pointed out that Chile also agreed to host vaccine trials for Sinofarm and AstraZeneca, which gave political leaders extra leverage in their negotiations to secure early doses.
Next, the country already had an extensive primary healthcare system in place ready to deliver vaccines when they arrived. “We have one primary care center per 40,000 people, and we have them in every little corner of the country, so for us it’s not a problem to reach the whole population very quickly,” said Soledad Martínez, an assistant professor of public health at the University of Chile.
Chile’s system is modeled after the UK’s National Healthcare System, with local clinics that are responsible for a certain community of patients. Healthcare workers see the same patients year after year. They regularly deliver vaccines to those patients for things like the flu, Hepatatis B, HPV, and other illnesses. All those existing relationships made mobilizing the Covid-19 vaccine effort much easier.
“You know everybody,” Martínez said. “You know the local leaders. You know where to do it. If you need a stadium or a big gym, you already have it.”
Finally, Chile has been spared the worst of the wave of fake news and misinformation that has threatened vaccine efforts elsewhere. “We don’t have a strong anti-vaxxer movement in Chile,” Martínez said. “We see them make some noise on Facebook, but in the end it doesn’t really amount to a very significant percentage of the population.”
Martínez suggested that Chile’s primary care system has helped build trust between healthcare workers and the communities they regularly see. She also pointed out that, unlike in other countries, the existence of the pandemic hasn’t become a contentious political issue. “In Chile we have this very monolithic opinion: It’s true. Coronavrius exists. You can attack it with vaccines,” she said. “There’s really no debate about that among the political elite.”
Said and Martínez agreed that if there’s one lesson other countries can take from Chile’s early vaccine success, it’s the importance of having broad access to healthcare. “You cannot face a pandemic without a strong public health system that provides basic care to all of the population,” Said said.