Crisis in Peru
It has been three weeks since I arrived in Peru due to the coronavirus crisis from university in the Netherlands. A lot has happened since then, and I feel it is my duty, not only as a Peruvian, but as a member of the international community to report the recent events in my country regarding the crisis. An obvious point comes to mind: why should you care about Peru or Latin America in general if the focus of infection right now is the United States and Europe? If the past month has taught us something is that the focus might quickly change. Further, it has been reported, most notably by Bill Gates, that poor countries will probably suffer the most in the long-term from the coronavirus crisis . Moreover, what is happening in Peru right now, may be revealed to be representative of many countries in Latin America and the global south in general. Trends like the loss of personal liberty, intransparency of the government and lack of protection for the weakest members of society are recognizable even in bastions of freedom and accountable government like the Netherlands. In other words, a better understanding of the developments in Peru helps gain a better understanding of our own situation, wherever we happen to be right now.
Given this experience, I want to bring three main points to your attention about the situation in Peru: (1) The state of individual liberty, (2) the state of the healthcare system and its capacity to tackle COVID-19 and (3) the economic response by the government. I think I should speak out, in a transparent way to provide accountability to the Peruvian government and hopefully, contribute my ‘grain of sand’ towards public opinion.
As with most countries in the world today, this crisis has reduced individual liberty in Peru. The day I arrived in Peru on the 15th of March, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a quarantine for two weeks. Since then, the government declared a night time curfew from 8pm to 5am, which later got extended to 6pm (1). As of Thursday the 2nd of March, the government declared men can go out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and women on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (2). I have not read about a quarantine, anywhere in the world, where separation based on sex or gender has been given. A lot of criticism ensued but so did a lot of praise given that the President stated on national TV that this should not be an excuse to be homophobic (3). I still do not understand what is the connection between the two, and in any case the correct term would be transphobia.
Another point about the state of individual liberty regards the power that the police and the military have been given. To repeat, the state of emergency means that the government suppresses certain individual liberties such as inviolability of property guaranteed under the Peruvian constitution. Ever since, the police and the military have detained 33,000 people for infringing the quarantine (4). To see this number in perspective, there were 62,000 deaths worldwide on the 4th of April from coronavirus (5) . Some called this measure fair because the people were infringing the quarantine and putting others at risk while others noted the extremity of the measure.
Secondly, the national healthcare system is by no means prepared to tackle a situation such as coronavirus. Not only do we lack the capacity, but so far the response seems to be inefficient and tends to create incentives for corruption such as buying overpriced masks (6). The newly appointed Minister of Health declared on national radio that “sooner or later, we will all get infected eventually” clearly not appeasing the population. The capacity of the healthcare system indicates that if the majority of the population gets infected, we have a serious ICU problem. In Peru we only have 500 ICU beds and 500 artificial respirators for a population of 30 million people (7)(8) . This is one of the lowest numbers in the region: Chile has 1,600 respirators for 18 million and Ecuador 1,200 respirators for 16 million (Ibid). I tried to access data from the National Institute of Statistics on the number of doctors and nurses per person and it was blocked with a password. I use this site frequently for university and I have never had this experience before. I do not want to assume the government is hiding this information, but it seems like a possible scenario.
The response of the government so far in respect to COVID-19 and buying tests and performing these is clearly insufficient. 16,000 tests have been taken as of the 4th of April, hence less than 1,000 tests have been given per day since the quarantine started (9). Furthermore, the government is emphasizing buying rapid testing from China instead of molecular testing from other sources such as South Korea, which are known to be more effective (10). So far we only know that President Vizcarra has been in dialogue with South Korea. The lack of molecular testing in the country was put forward by an important expert on molecular biology, the former chair of the National Institute of Health, Ernesto Bustamante (11). After he called out the government on national TV, he tweeted that the President had personally called him to ‘recommend’ that he should stop making these declarations. Again, silencing is a worrisome variable. The tweet reads: “I thank President Vizcarra for suggesting that I should not make any appearance in the media. I would like this, because really, I would prefer to read or watch Netflix, but when the media calls I have to respond to the hard-working journalists. Expressing my opinion is my right”
Figure: Tweet by Ernesto Bustamante, Peruvian molecular biologist (Bustamante, 2020)
Finally, there is the economic response. The quarantine by the government closes all non-essential business. This is not something that the majority of the Peruvian population can afford. 2,8% of the population lives in extreme poverty, 20,5% lives with one unsatisfied basic necessity and 98% of all enterprises are micro or small, hence they cannot afford to skip day-to-day business (12) (13). The initial response of the government was to distribute bonds of 380 soles ($110) for half-a-month worth of pay. The second bond is under way. In total this makes 720 soles ($209) (14). The minimum monthly salary recognized by the government is of s/.930 ($270). $60 dollars less is a lot for many families. For this reason the Minister of the Economy, the popular 35 year-old Harvard educated Maria Antonieta Alva proposed to Congress, which has now approved, that pensioners can withdraw 25% of their savings from the national pension system (15) (16). Nevertheless, it is still doubtful whether this measure can reach 73% of the economy which operates under the informal sector, hence unregistered in the pension system (12) . While the Minister acknowledges serious faults, she defends it as part of a contention and future reactivation plan.
All in all, I do not see the Peruvian scenario with positivity. I think there are serious concerns with the suppression of individual liberties and we are giving too much power to the police and the military. This makes me especially nervous with our troubled past with military dictatorships. Also because the President closed Congress last year and everything signals that the newly elected Congress – albeit for a year’s tenure – is wholly behind him (17). Public opinion is for the President, which makes my view controversial – the vast majority of people my age see him with admiration, but I only see too much power concentrated in the executive, insufficient response to this crisis, and too much repression. I fear speaking up but I also fear not to.
In times of crisis those who stay silent are also collaborators.
El Comercio. Perú amplía toque de queda: a partir de mañana no se podrá salir de 6pm a 5am – 30/03/2020 [Internet]. El País. [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://www.elpais.com.uy/mundo/peru-amplia-toque-queda-partir-manana-podra-salir-6pm-5am.html.
El Peruano. Gobierno oficializa días de salida diferenciados para hombres y mujeres [Internet]. El Peruano. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: http://elperuano.pe/noticia-gobierno-oficializa-dias-salida-diferenciados-para-hombres-y-mujeres-93855.aspx
RPP. Martín Vizcarra: Restricción de salida por días no es pretexto para ninguna medida de homofobia [VIDEO] | RPP Noticias [Internet]. Radio Programas del Perú. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://rpp.pe/politica/gobierno/martin-vizcarra-restriccion-de-salida-por-dias-no-es-pretexto-para-ninguna-medida-de-homofobia-video-noticia-1256046
Redacción Gestión. Coronavirus Perú: suman más de 33 mil los detenidos desde que inició la cuarentena obligatoria | [Internet]. Gestión. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://gestion.pe/peru/coronavirus-peru-suman-mas-de-33-mil-los-detenidos-desde-que-inicio-la-cuarentena-obligatoria-cuarentena-estado-de-emergencia-covid-19-nndc-noticia/
Worldometer. Coronavirus Update (Live): 1,169,401 Cases and 62,734 Deaths from COVID-19 Virus Outbreak – Worldometer [Internet]. Worldometer. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/
LR R. Compraron mascarillas con sobrecosto de 4.3 millones de soles [Internet]. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://larepublica.pe/sociedad/2020/04/03/coronavirus-en-peru-contraloria-advierte-que-cenares-del-minsa-compro-mascarillas-para-covid-19-con-sobrecosto/
Canal N. Martín Vizcarra: Ya se puede atender hasta 500 personas en cuidados intensivos | Canal N [Internet]. Canal N. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://canaln.pe/actualidad/martin-vizcarra-ahora-se-puede-atender-hasta-500-personas-que-lleguen-cuidados-intensivos-coronavirus-n410101
Redacción Gestión. Coronavirus: con 500 respiradores, Perú no debería permitir que se superen los 12,500 contagios | estado de emergencia | Perú | Gestión [Internet]. Gestión. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://gestion.pe/peru/coronavirus-con-500-respiradores-peru-no-deberia-permitir-que-se-superen-los-12500-contagios-estado-de-emergencia-noticia/
Balbi M. Expreso [Internet]. Expreso. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://www.expreso.com.pe/columnistas/mariella-balbi
Gestión R. Llega al Perú el primer lote de 150,000 pruebas rápidas para detectar el coronavirus [Internet]. Gestión. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://gestion.pe/peru/coronavirus-peru-llega-al-peru-el-primer-lote-de-150000-pruebas-rapidas-para-detectar-el-covid-19-cuarentena-latam-nndc-noticia
Bustamante E. Ernesto Bustamante on Twitter: “Agradezco a presidente @MartinVizcarraC que me sugiriera que no haga presencia en medios. Yo quisiera eso, pues en verdad preferiría leer o ver Netflix, pero cuando los medios llaman debo cumplir con atender labor sacrificada de los periodistas. Expresar mi opinión es mi derecho.” / Twitter [Internet]. Twitter. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://twitter.com/ErnesBustamante/status/1242948278876020742
America Economia. Empleo informal alcanza 73% del mercado laboral en Perú [Internet]. America Economía. 2018 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: https://www.americaeconomia.com/economia-mercados/finanzas/empleo-informal-alcanza-73-del-mercado-laboral-en-peru
INEI. Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica [Internet]. INEI. 2020 [cited 2020 Apr 4]. Available from: http://m.inei.gob.pe/estadisticas/indice-tematico/poverty/