Chile to postpone referendum on new constitution as coronavirus concerns grow

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean lawmakers said on Thursday they had reached agreement to postpone until late October a much-anticipated referendum on a new constitution as safety concerns around the coronavirus outbreak take precedence over politics.

The referendum, originally slated for April 26, will be rescheduled for Oct. 25, lawmakers said. The deal still requires formal approval by a two-thirds vote of congress.

“This sends the message that the health of Chileans is our priority,” said Alvaro Elizalde, president of the opposition socialist party following the announcement. “We’re confronting a crisis that requires we act responsibly.”

A new constitution was a central demand that emerged from months of protests over inequality in late 2019. The mass demonstrations saw thousands killed, injured and arrested as well as billions of dollars’ worth of damage and losses to business.

Coronavirus, however, has quickly upended priorities in Chile.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced a “state of catastrophe” to confront the growing outbreak in Chile, giving the government extraordinary powers to restrict freedom of movement and assure food supply and basic services. On Thursday he announced a $12 billion economic aid package.

Chile’s health ministry has confirmed 342 coronavirus cases in the country, among the highest tallies in Latin America. No one in Chile has died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness cause by the virus.

The South American nation has already closed schools, shut down its borders and limited public gatherings as the number of coronavirus cases soared.

Reporting by Natalia Ramos and Dave Sherwood; Writing by Dave Sherwood