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Chile government negotiates bill-paying delay for poor as coronavirus bites

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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced on Friday that low-income families will be able to delay household debt payments without the fear of having utilities cut off in a bid to mitigate the economic pain caused by the spread of coronavirus.

Pinera said three million Chilean families would be able to make use of the measures, agreed following talks with electricity, water and telecommunications companies.

The government has also sought congressional approval for a “Covid-19 Bond” of 50,000 Chilean pesos ($60USD) per dependent for the poorest families and a job protection bill for workers who cannot fulfill their roles amid a quarantine being rolled out around the country.

The move is part of his centre-right government´s attempt to keep promises it made to better protect the country´s poorest following almost five months of intense protests over social inequality and the high cost of living that began in October.

Following those, Pinera had acceded to a vote on a new constitution, to improve the hated private pensions system, bolster the minimum wage, crack down on white collar crime and reduce the cost of medication.

But the advent of coronavirus has added insult to injury: global stock volatility has already seen millions wiped off Chilean pension funds, dole queues were growing this week and there is intense concern about how its creaking health service will handle the caseload.

Last week, the government launched a new economic rescue package with an $11.7 billion price tag - spending equivalent to 4.7% of Chile’s gross domestic product - in response to a general shutdown following the global coronavirus outbreak.

Chile has seen 1,610 cases of coronavirus confirmed so far. Shops, restaurants and cinemas have been closed, schools have been suspended and this week a total quarantine was applied to large parts of the capital Santiago as well as other areas around the country.

Reporting by Natalia Ramos; writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by David Gregorio

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