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Beyond Brazil: Peru’s distinctive Covid-19 crisis

By Allie Nawrat-

Source: AFP

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic – around the Easter weekend in early April – there were many stories in the mainstream media about around 700 British tourists being stuck in Peru, and particularly Cusco, potentially for months.

This really hit home for me as last Easter holidays I travelled to Peru with my aunt and cousin for two weeks; it so easily could have been us that were trapped in our hotel rooms with little information about when we could return to the UK. I also thought of all the guides and locals that we met on our travels and how much this pandemic would affect their livelihoods, as well as their health.

At this point, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared Europe as the new epicentre of Covid-19 pandemic, as the situation in Italy, Spain, France and the UK was escalating.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, UK media coverage from April onwards largely focused on Europe, and then primarily on the UK’s own struggles with this deadly virus. John Hopkins University figures show that the UK has the third-highest death rate in the world, despite only having a population of 60 million.

Covid-19 and Latin America

As the UK begins to lift its lockdown in July, the mainstream media has more time and space to focus on what is going in the Americas, and not just in relation to European citizens being stuck there.

At the end of May, the WHO declared the epicentre of the outbreak to be Latin America as daily infections in the region surpassed those in Europe and the US.

Many of these cases are from Brazil, which now has the second-highest number of cases and deaths in the world – 1.84 million and more than 71,000 respectively as of 12 July, according to figures from John Hopkins University.

Brazil has also attracted international attention because of its President, Jair Bolsonaro’s, nonchalant attitude towards Covid-19. He famously declared it to be overstated and just ‘‘a little flu”. Only time will tell if his attitude towards Covid-19 will change now he has contracted the virus himself.

However, Brazil alone is not responsible for the escalating situation in Latin America. Other countries in the region of particular concern to global health authorities include Peru, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Peru’s Covid-19 crisis

Peru has recently taken over from Chile as the second most affected country in Latin America with almost 323,000 cases as of 12 July; its population totals 32 million people. Mexico has the second-highest death rate in the region with over 34,000, while Peru comes in third with just under 12,000 deaths.

This seems to be particularly strange situation given that Peru’s Government, led by President Martín Vizcarra, acted quickly and decisively to lock down in mid-March within days of discovering its first few cases. Peru was actually in lockdown before the UK and France – even though the virus was largely confined to Europe and Asia at this point.

Despite this long, strict lockdown – where borders were closed and residents were subject to curfews imposed by the military - Peru began to see an escalation of cases in May and June. What explains Peru’s extreme suffering at the hands of Covid-19?

Challenge of the informal economy

The World Economic Forum has picked out Peru’s Covid-19 crisis as particularly worrying. This is linked to almost two-thirds of Peruvians working in the informal, or shadow, economy. This is higher than the Latin American average of 54%, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Lima’s Economic and Business Development Institute predicted in 2019 that one million people in Peru were at risk of falling back into poverty if their income were reduced by an average of 7%, something that has become a very real possibility for millions in the Covid-19 pandemic. Informal workers living on the poverty line have no safety net to rely on if they do not turn up for work and they do not have access to sufficient savings or unemployment insurance.

To add to this, these informal workers do not have the privilege of being able to work from home, something which huge swathes of the European population have been privileged enough to do during this pandemic – me included. This is because of the types of jobs that dominate the informal economy – agriculture, manufacturing, construction and tourism – cannot be done from home, but also because very few people have access to an at-home computer to facilitate remote working.

President Vizcarra referred to those breaking lockdowns and returning to work in the context of the lockdowns as ‘selfish’ and ‘individualistic’. There must be examples of being irresponsible and needlessly flouting the lockdown measures – this is a trend we have seen across the world, just think of the images of thousands of people flocking to Bournemouth in mid-June- but what choice do these informal workers have? If they did adhere to lockdowns, they would undoubtedly risk plunging their family into more insecurity, poverty and potential homelessness.

Failure to distribute aid to remote areas

The country’s government did anticipate that huge swathes of Peru’s population would need significant economic support during the pandemic, and so it developed a large economic support package totalling around $26bn. This represents around 12% of Peru’s GDP and makes this aid package one of the largest in the region.

The package included 10bn soles ($2.8bn) in direct transfers to the most vulnerable households during the lockdown, as well as postponing household’s payments of electricity and water, according to the IMF.

However, there have been numerous reports that these packages failed to reach many of those in need. There has been a suggestion that many people in the informal sector in urban areas did not receive these packages because they were not registered on any kind of government registry.

There has also been criticism that distribution of this aid was so uncoordinated that it actually contributed to the spread of Covid-19. For instance, because many informal workers in Peru do not have bank accounts for this money to be distributed, the only way for them to get access to state aid was to queue for hours outside banks where social distancing was a real challenge. Also, some living in more remote areas of Peru were forced to travel for hours on crowded public transport to get their money.

Low quality healthcare system

A final challenge to Peru’s effective tackling of the Covid-19 pandemic is the country’s poorly resourced and fragmented health system. Its health budget is one of the lowest in South America with just 4% of GDP being spent on healthcare, half of the 8% average for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development states. Also, Peru has only 32 health workers per 10,000 inhabitants, significantly lower than 44.5 per 10,000 recommended by the WHO.

As a result, Peru’s health system has been struggling for decades to treat its population and, therefore, was far from prepared for a viral pandemic, which has overwhelmed even the most sophisticated of healthcare systems in Europe. The country has faced almost daily shortages of ventilators, oxygen and personal protective equipment in its under-staffed hospitals.

This situation is significantly worse for the rural population, and particularly the indigenous communities. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 92% of indigenous communities in Peru do not have any medical staff and they already had severe shortages of medicines and equipment prior to the pandemic.

CNN investigated the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the central Amazonian Shipibo people who live eight hours from a hospital. This is a hospital so overwhelmed by the disease that only one in ten critical patients survive the viral disease.

“The country is paying a high price for its failure over many years to invest sufficiently in the health sector,” concludes Nora Espiritu, a Peruvian doctor and health researcher in the BMJ.




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