Fr. Peter Hughes, SSC is based at the Columban house in Lima, Peru.
As Peru enters its 8th week of lockdown the general sensation is increasing anxiety and fear of the future. The majority of the people now face the stark dilemma of whether its best to die of hunger or the virus. The initial expectation of flattening the curve, reduction of numbers infected and deaths has not worked out. The official daily report shows no signs of change on that all important front. The numbers in Peru are now the highest in L. America with the exception of Brazil. This is disappointing because the government acted rapidly and has had massive support for implementing the lockdown as district to what is happening in Brazil.
The future is perceived in different ways. Fort the majority, especially the poor, and the vulnerable it looks very scary. Obviously it has a different colour and is not as threatening for people who have security, employment and regular income. This country, like many others, still suffers from serious economic, social and cultural divisions, inequalities and wounds that haven´t healed. We live in a violent society, with very high rates if criminality and feminicides. Corruption is rampant in public life. Three of the last 4 elected presidents are in prison , the other took his own life, all have embezzled mega amounts. The state and its institutions are weak, inefficient aand unprepared to meet the demands of the ravages of COVID 19. Economic growth has enriched foreign investment and the private sector but 70% of the population are either self employed, unemployed or without Jobs.
On the ground even though the government enjoys over 80% support for the lockdown, the implementation has been uneven. Most people buy food in the market every day, they live, survive from one day to the next. Most don´t have refrigeration. Crowded market scenes are foreign to social distancing, wearing masks, gloves. Inevitably foodstuffs and money travel through many hands. Detention and imposing fines on offenders hasn’t worked. Reducing curfew hours to 4 and 6 p.m. have even resulted in increased crowding in the reduced time frames. A major problem has been the cultural difference between officialdom and the habits, customs of the people. For example imposing a total lock down in Holy Week was a disaster in the urban areas in Lima and on the northern coast. Unfortunately the figures have rocketed in Lambayeque, Piura and Tumbes. Most people have to survive in small, overcrowded houses. Some are able to implement good skills, but anxiety levels, depression are on the increase due to fear of the future.
State economic relief has been small but most welcome. The problem has been the distribution through the banking system where the crowds unable to observe social distance are inclined to storm the outlets. Obviously people don´t have access to banks in rural areas, andean villages or in the Amazon region. Statistics say that 85% believe we will ultimately overcome the virus and triumph. 51% of the population have more fear of dying of hunger; 43% fear more about losing their Jobs than the virus; 86% feel the cost will be too high for families. Rationale, logic are more subject to feeling and intuition. Schools are struggling to implement online classes, teachers, students are caught quite unprepared, lack of skills and technology. Only 8% can work through digital communication from home.
New heroes have emerged, overworked health workers, doctors, nurses, police, army and street cleaners are applauded every night. On the other extreme a major flash point is the prison situation, a veritable time bomb. Gross overcrowding has reached 100,000 inmates in 68 penal institutions whose total capacity is for 40,000. Smouldering violence can erupt in an instant. Before COVID 19, levels of TBC, malaria, HIV are rife. Prisoners are dependent on their families for medicine. A significant number of non threatening people can be released but decisions are located in the links in the chain of a corrupt judiciary. Another sad story is the absolute negative reaction of the powerful economic elite in refusing point blank the suggestion for a solidarity tax on the huge fortunes in Peru, between them amass over 20 billion dollars per annum.
Going back to the old normality is a burst flush for countries like Perú. This society has been high jacked by neo liberal economic power where the market rules supreme. The remnant of anything like the primacy of the common good supported by a welfare state has long gone. What the future holds is unknown, we have to struggle together to build the new normal. COVID 19 is the same virus but is different in the global south. It has surnames: income, hunger, debts, rent, massive job loss and unemployment, family violence, going to school. And Peru has survived mega disasters, hope springs eternal. Today the sun shines, the birds sing, nature has had a wonderful respite, the river Rimac is crystal clear, free from mining waste, mega refuse that placed it in the top 10 of the dirtiest in the world, but how long will it last?