May 19, 2020 / 12:15 AM / 6 days ago

Chile's poor clash with police amid concerns over food shortages in outskirts of Santiago

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Police and protesters clashed in Santiago on Monday amid a city-wide lockdown meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus as local officials warned that food shortages had hit one of the Chilean capital´s poorest neighborhoods.

A woman is detained after shouting slogans against riot police at a poor neighborhood where people are protesting the lack of help from the government, during a general quarantine imposed due to a surge of fresh coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases, at 'El Bosque' area in Santiago, Chile May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

A group of protesters threw rocks, shouted and burned piles of wood along a street in the destitute neighborhood on Santiago’s southern fringe. Images on social media and local television showed police spraying tear gas and water cannons to disperse the growing crowd.

The municipality said in a statement that families were going hungry in the poorest sectors of El Bosque, a neighborhood where many work informally, or not at all. The city district has been under quarantine since mid-April, city officials said in a statement.

“The last weeks we have had a great demand from neighbors for food,” El Bosque Mayor Sadi Melo, of Chile´s opposition Socialist party, told Radio BioBio. “We are in a very complex situation of hunger and lack of work.”

Santiago is one of Latin America´s most prosperous cities. But a stark rich-poor divide and a growing sense of inequality prompted mass protests in late 2019. Many of the demands lodged by protesters last year, from increased pensions to higher pay, remain unresolved.

In a statement, Melo´s office said El Bosque had distributed more than 2,000 aid packages to the neediest families. But it warned the central government “not to continue to burden municipalities with an economic responsibility we cannot cover.”

Chile´s center-right president, Sebastian Pinera, said in a televised address later on Monday that his government would deliver 2.5 million baskets of food and cleaning supplies directly to homes by late this week or early next.

“We will prioritize the most vulnerable families,” Pinera said, calling the planned delivery of food “historic.”

The South American nation has already announced a massive stimulus package worth nearly 7% of gross domestic product to ease the economic impact of the pandemic, although opposition leaders and social groups have criticized the package as inadequate.

The government´s proposed measures include beefed-up unemployment checks, deferred tax payments and government-backed credit lines for small business.

Chile surpassed 40,000 cases of the new coronavirus last week amid a sharp spike in infections that has seen hospitals approach collapse in the weeks ahead of the Southern Hemisphere winter. The country now has 46,059 total cases and 478 deaths.

Reporting by Natalia Ramos and Dave Sherwood; Editing by Peter Cooney

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