Poverty levels are still above pre-pandemic levels in Peru

"I find people resilient by nature but somewhat worn down by the length of the pandemic and the grieving for those they have lost" writes Columban missionary Fr. Ed O’Connell in Peru.

The total number of Covid cases in Peru is more than three and a half million and the number of deaths 213,475. Officially we are in the 4th wave, even though it be much smaller than the others. We are now averaging well over 1,000 new cases a day, with the omicron variant still predominating. The fourth jab is now available but quite a few people stopped after the second vaccination. A lot of those who are now catching Covid are those who have not been vaccinated.

Poverty levels are still above pre-pandemic levels. The National Statistics Institute has published figures for poverty in 2021 and these show that just under 26% of Peruvians were in poverty at the end of last year. This is 4.2 percentage points less than a year earlier, but still 5.7 points higher than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. The strong recovery in output in 2021 has yet to raise levels of employment. This year, 2022, poverty levels may well increase further as strong inflation outpaces any improvement in incomes. As of the end of April, inflation was running at an annual rate of just under 8%, primarily because of the rise in prices for food and energy.

I accompany Manuel Duato Special Needs School, a Columban project. In March this year the school opened again, after two years of our teachers working “virtually” with the students, most of whom are severely disabled. We have put in emergency washing facilities at the entrance of the school, to comply with the Education Ministry’s bio-security measures and we plan to set up a communal kitchen, once permission is given by the Ministry of Education to do so, for breakfast and lunch for those the social worker sees as the most needy children. The teachers are working with reduced class numbers and the students come in on alternate days. It is so important for them to return for themselves and their parents’ mental health. Each student is being evaluated and hopefully by August, classes will be back to normal with full numbers.

The Warmi Huasi project accompanies children and adolescents at risk in the Lima districts of Carabayllo and San Martin de Porres and in the Province of Paucar de Sara Sara, high up in the Andes in the department of Ayacucho. In January and February 2022 summer workshops took place in San Benito with 150 participants in a variety of activities, including English classes and traditional Peruvian dancing. I assisted, virtually, at the closing ceremony on the 13th March. It was great for the children to socialise again, a good preparation for returning to school.

The five communal kitchens in San Benito – four of them run by the mothers of the homework clubs – and the one in Misiones parish continue to function and are still very much needed. In June, they served 718 meals a day and took care of 48 social cases as well. Numbers fluctuate as some parents find work and drop out whilst others out of necessity join. We have helped each communal kitchen with the purchase of vegetables, chicken/fish, gas, bio-security equipment and a small fire extinguisher. The communal kitchens teams, out of their poverty, show their solidarity with the most vulnerable.

In Ayacucho we are now accompanying three primary schools, as they restart the reading clubs in the schools, supervised by teachers who have been trained by us. We are also working with two secondary schools to improve the adolescents’ social skills, as alcoholism and teenage pregnancies are everyday realities.

Latest news from Lima: We have, since May, started the four homework clubs and the reading club, the latter twice a week in the Warmi Huasi Centre in San Benito. The Therapy Club meets twice a week, helping over 50 children who have minor disabilities with physio and speech therapies.

I am now almost a year back into parish life. This time ‘Holy Archangels’, a massive parish, population-wise the size of a small diocese, with 130,000 people. There are 18 chapels and at the weekends, I accompany four of them, each twice a month on Sundays. I also visit during the week to do bible reflection, in a format that encourages personal meditation. The parish catechetical programs have begun: 500 children in the two-year First Communion Program; 350 adolescents in a one-year baptism/first communion program; 450 youth, from 16 to 21, in a one year confirmation program; 60 adults in a three-month program that covers from baptism through to confirmation and a second one will be held from September through to November, with as many as 80 participants. Each year we baptise at least 600 infants up to the age of 7.

I find people resilient by nature but somewhat worn down by the length of the pandemic and the grieving for those they have lost. They are still in survival mode, as many still do not have jobs and young people have had to leave their third level studies until they can get work again.

It would be easy to get downhearted and become paralysed by the world situation and the hopeless political situation in Peru. However, that would be a luxury for families here who have no alternative but to go out each day to earn enough to keep the family going, and even then many of them give time to serve their local community or help out a neighbour in need. Thankfully we can say and feel that: “The Lord our God, full of love and mercy, passed amongst us and filled us with his grace.”

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