Nikita Kent: Why is Peru doing better than its neighbours in the battle against Covid-19?

Nikita Kent: Why is Peru doing better than its neighbours in the battle against Covid-19?

The Peruvian government knows it cannot afford a health epidemic.

In early March, Peru took quick and decisive action to combat the coronavirus. If preventative action is not taken, the overall hygiene practices and health status of Peruvians give rise to the perfect circumstances for devastating rates of coronavirus cases and mortalities.

Nikita Kent
Nikita Kent

As of April 5, Peru sits at approximately 1746 confirmed cases. By comparison, Ecuador sits at ~3500 positive cases, around double the number of its southern neighbour, despite having a population size (16 million) half the size of Peru’s (32 million). The statistics are also similar in terms of numbers of deaths: 73 people have died in Peru, while 172 have already died in Ecuador.

Although Ecuador announced its first case of coronavirus (February 29) seven days before Peru’s first case (March 6), both countries closed schools on the same date (March 11). Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra’s quick, effective actions will save millions of Peruvians from the pandemonium many developing countries will soon experience.

Economic relief package

In Peru, as with other Latin American countries, many jobs are informal and therefore many do not have sick or paid leave entitlements. It is also highly unlikely people have savings to live off for extended periods of time. Peru’s government has announced a $US26 billion pandemic package which will aid one-third of Peruvians during the one-month social isolation period. Unfortunately, despite the government’s best efforts, many Peruvians will be struggling to put food on the table over the next few months.

Ecuador’s military has not enforced its own quarantine measures to the same extent as Peru has. Strict enforcement is absolutely necessary for developing countries, as for many poor citizens there is a very tough decision to make between not having enough to eat or contracting the virus.

Hygiene and health conditions

Complicating matters further for Peru is the lack of hygiene standards as a cultural norm. It is not uncommon for men to urinate on the streets, or for people to spit on the roads. Typical Peruvian food markets are like those criticized in Wuhan: raw, skinned meats sold are sold in open-air markets and careless food and live-animal handling are rife across the country.

The pungent odour that fills these markets speaks to the lack of food safety standards and cleanliness. Though washing of hands is recommended by authorities, it is best practice to assume that everything you touch in a public space in Lima – Peru’s capital city – is dirty.

Peru fish market
At the largest fish market in Peru in Callao, 2018. Gloves appear to be optional. Photo by Nikita Kent.

Peru’s health system is not equipped for everyday health issues, let alone a catastrophic virus. There are many pre-existing health problems among its citizens, including obesity and malnourishment. ~40% of Peruvian infants and 20% of women of reproductive age 20% are considered anaemic, and 70% of adults are either overweight or obese. Such conditions cause delayed and blunted antiviral mechanisms, which may result in a higher demand for emergency health services and a higher mortality rate.

A rapid outbreak of COVID-19 in Peru would bring absolute devastation to the country and especially to indigenous Amazonian and Andean communities who have little to no access to modern medicine.

Speed of response

Peru’s government response to the coronavirus has been to roll out some of the strictest isolation and closure measures in the world as fast as possible.

A national health emergency was declared on March 11 when the country had only 13 cases. All educational institutions and large meetings were suspended on this date.

Obligatory social isolation began to be enforced by the military on March 16. Since then, a lockdown has been implemented between 8 pm and 5 am, which was later enforced between 6 pm to 5 am across Peru; disobedient regions located in northern Peru have lockdown between 4 pm to 5 am. Personal vehicles have been prohibited from being driven and are only excused for the essential services of food and medicine. On March 26, the government extended obligatory social isolation for another 13 days until April 12.

Tourism contributes to almost 4% of Peru’s GDP annually, but this did not stop the government from barring all travel immediately on March 16. Each year, thousands of Chinese, North American and European tourists arrive to experience the magic of Perú’s coast, mountains and jungle.

Not only were the borders closed, but all interprovincial travel by bus, car, plane or boat was suspended. Peru’s tough measures have left many tourists and international students stranded, many of whom have contacted their respective embassies for help to evacuate the country.

Peruvians’ reaction

For the most part, Peruvians have been understanding of Vizcarra’s social isolation and lockdown policies. Popular social media in Peru, such as WhatsApp and Instagram, are filled with pro-isolation messages being spread among Perú’s youth. ‘Quédate en casa!’ (stay home!) is a trending catchphrase.

Those disobeying rules have been condemned among the general public. Popular entertainment TV show host Milagros Leiva has been widely criticized for exercising disobedience and privilege towards the lockdown rules.

Last week, Leiva was caught by authorities (and on tape) driving her personal vehicle without authorisation. While detained, she called the General of the Armed Forces she personally knew to excuse herself from the rules for being a “journalist”. The virus is no laughing matter, and every citizen ought to abide by the rules, famous or not.

The positive news is that the scare of coronavirus will wake the world up to the realities of microbial spread via unhygienic practices. The open-air markets criticized in Wuhan will also trigger discussions among Peruvian authorities and citizens about hygienic live animal and food handling.

Maybe it will also cause men to think twice about their tendency to urinate in public spaces.

The Peruvian government is being proactive in the face of this pandemic, and I applaud them for doing everything they can to safeguard Peru from a potential disaster.

For more, listen to Nikita Kent on this week’s Democracy Project podcast and the accompanying article, NZ-Latin America relationship will survive Covid-19, expert says.

Nikita Kent (Twitter: @NikitaKent1) completed a Bachelor of Science degree in International Relations and Geography at Victoria University of Wellington. Nikita completed the Victoria International Leadership Programme and studied at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile as a Prime Minister’s Scholar to Latin America. Her interests include sustainable development through food agriculture, natural resource conflict and geopolitics in the Asia Pacific region. She participated in the first 2019 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Santiago and recently completed an internship at the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Nikita is a dual citizen of Peru and New Zealand and is a fluent speaker of Spanish.