Emmaus International

Percy Vargas, National Director of Emmaus Peru and manager of the Emmaus San Agustin group, discusses the reasons why his country has not managed to emerge from this health crisis. He provides analysis which could be applied to other countries in the region.

Peru, our country, is facing a serious outbreak of cases of coronavirus, with an increase in those hospitalised and deaths. This comes one month after the gradual lifting of lockdown to reactivate the paralysed economy, including protective rules and protocols from 1st July in 17 of the 25 regions.

Prudence and respect for the regulations is recommended to take care of people, yet the authorisation of national land and air travel, and the opening of large commercial centres have spread infections and they have doubled, with daily infections rising from 3,300 to 6,300. Peru is bordering on 430,000 cases and approximately 20,000 deaths from this pandemic. It is the country with the seventh highest number of cases of coronavirus in the world and the ninth country with the highest death toll from Covid-19.

To analyse this situation, we must consider Peruvian economic and social problems as important factors in preventing Peru from containing the outbreak.

Peru is a country with a high number of informal workers, it is believed that 71% of the actively employed population works in the informal sector and many earn a living on a daily basis. Their work as street vendors in impoverished conditions has forced them to go to crowded places, hindering them from compliance with the most important measure to combat coronavirus: maintaining physical distance from others. This activity has been considered as one of the most significant causes of clusters of infections between vendors and buyers.

During a prolonged lockdown, it is necessary to frequently leave the house to purchase items, because there is no infrastructure in households to store food. Popular markets sell food for lower prices so families frequent them to buy provisions and, consequently, spread the disease. In a country as gastronomic as Peru, the custom is to eat fresh produce and we do not have protocols for disinfecting food. At the fruit market in La Victoria, Lima, 86% of vendors became infected with Covid-19.

Another consideration regarding infection rates is related to poverty. According to the National Survey of Households in 2019, 11.8% of Peruvian households lived in overcrowded housing, with five or more people living in very small houses which lacked many comforts and services, which is the reason why many families have become infected. Although mitigating economic measures were set up, they did not reach the majority of poor Peruvians. This included the payment of an allowance of 760 soles (some US$222) for approximately 6.8 million vulnerable, poor and extremely poor households and self-employed workers.

Although the Government offered online options to receive this allowance, many beneficiaries had to go in person to the banks to receive it. This led to queuing and crowds forming, leading to yet another cluster; indeed, banks became known as “critical locations” for the spread of infection, along with markets and public transport.

This context laid bare the economic and political system that exists in our nation: one that is inefficient, false and harmful, particularly for the poorest classes in Peru. The false economic growth does not reflect the standard of living of the people; the health and education systems, the formalisation of business, public safety, these are indispensable aspects for rebuilding a new Peruvian State. However, the large national and foreign companies have benefitted from interest-free loans worth millions and there is still no clear support in place for small and family-run businesses, despite the fact that they have played a key role in the survival of poor families. It is clear that global economic interests still prevail in our economy.

The strategy to tackle Covid-19 was poorly developed from the start, although at first it worked. It wasn’t sustainable over time and it collapsed. We are discovering that it is very difficult to lower the curve of infections without a strategy which incorporates all the above-mentioned issues.

Percy Vargas
National Delegate for Peru
Manager of Emmaus San Agustin