At the beginning of Peru’s Covid-19 quarantine, I started a daily Facebook post with pictures and quick notes of how we were handling the lockdown. (If you missed those posts, you can check them out HERE on my blog.) It was easy to keep it lighthearted at first, but as the days wore on, it became a bit harder to find something fun, interesting, pretty, or unusual to post each day. A few weeks in, people started sending me notes asking,
“So, what’s it really like in Peru?’
Invariably, after I wrote back telling our friends how we were stuck at home and could only go out for groceries & medicine, they would reply, “Yes, it’s the same way here.”
Now, I’m a bit of a news junkie, and I check out a couple different sources each day to read U.S. and international news, so I am well aware of what is happening “at home.” I know that many people were laid off, small businesses are suffering, schools closed in March and churches are only recently re-opening. For a while I listened to Ohio Gov. DeWine’s daily address while Ade watched Peru’s President Vizcarra give his daily speech. So I really do have a pretty good idea of what has been happening in the U.S., and I’ll have to admit that I cringe a little bit each time I hear someone say that the situation in the States is the same as here in Peru. Things might look the same on the surface, but there really are big differences in how a wealthy, fully-developed country deals with a pandemic compared with what happens in the developing world.
Now, if you remember telling us or other missionaries around the world that “it’s the same way here,” please don’t feel bad. I think that’s a common misconception, but if you have a few minutes and are interested in the situation, I’d love to share a few insights with you.
To begin with (and on a purely selfish level), the places that are open for shopping here really ONLY sell food and medicine. We have no stores like Walmart or Meijer, so if you happen to need new socks or underwear, or if you tear through two of the only pairs of pants you haven’t outgrown like Luis did, tough luck. You can’t buy craft supplies for a cute project you saw on Pinterest, or a new ink cartridge for the printer, and there are no quick trips to an “essential” Home Depot (which we don’t have here anyway) to get things for a house repair project. (Thankfully Ade has a stash of supplies in the basement, but I feel bad for other men who have been stuck at home with nothing at all to do.)
We haven’t been allowed to use our personal vehicles at all during the first two months of the lockdown, and it really doesn’t matter, because the “stay at home” orders truly do mean that we have to STAY AT HOME. There is NO driving to the store, or taking the truck out for a Sunday afternoon drive in the country; no walks around the block, no exercising in parks. A friend told me that someone asked her why her husband and son weren’t out hiking in the amazing Andes Mountains, but as you can probably guess by now, we aren’t allowed to do that either. (I read a local news report where people were arrested for hiking up to one of the beautiful alpine lakes.) And I’ve gotta be honest – it’s really hard to be content staying at home for more than three months straight when you know that vistas like this are just outside your door!
But as I mentioned earlier, these things boil down to rather selfish complaints when I’m looking at the differences between the quarantine situation in the U.S. and what it’s like here in Peru. And while I can’t speak with firsthand knowledge about other countries, I imagine that the situation is quite similar in the rest of the developing world.
As many of you noticed and commented on at the time, Peru was one of the first Latin American countries to impose a very strict lockdown on March 16. It hasn’t worked. One reason is that a large majority of Peruvians (more than 72% according to this CNN article) work in the informal economy. These are people who do not have government jobs that continue paying them, or office jobs that they can continue doing from home. These people are self employed or paid “off the books. They sell food at a fruit stand or a meat counter at the market; they open tiny shops in the front rooms of their houses. They are the Quechua grannies who sell herbs on the sidewalk. They are the mechanics who work on vehicles parked on the curb, or the people who are trying to scratch out a living by renting parking spaces while washing cars at the back of the lot. They are the gym trainers, the subsistence farmers, the local tour guides. These people are the majority of our friends and neighbors.
Since Peru’s economy has been on the upswing for the past several years, these people were finally starting to actually make a decent living from their efforts. But in a few short months, the Covid crisis has put a quick end to what has taken them years to build.
In smaller cities like ours, these people have lost their jobs, they have lost their shops, and on the occasions when they do try to set up a blanket on the sidewalk to sell their produce, they risk having the local security forces come through and “decomission” (i.e. take) their food. Danny’s guitar teacher, Lu’s orchestra director, and the boys’ karate sensei had to move out of their studios & dojo because they couldn’t pay the rent during the past few months when they didn’t have students to teach. And who knows if the families of those students will have enough disposable income to pay for lessons when this is all over? (On a personal note, I find it absolutely tragic to see so many friends finally doing well financially, only to watch them get knocked back to square one… or below… by this pandemic!)In the biggest cities of Peru where it has been next to impossible to enforce the lockdown, people working in the informal sector have continued to flock into the markets, hoping to sell enough fruit or vegetables to buy a day’s worth of food. They’ve been arrested in the streets for pushing their carts of cookies or water bottles for sale. The markets and the streets have become a hotbed of Covid contagion, but these people have not “kept the quarantine” because they aren’t fortunate enough to live in “the provinces” (the slightly degrading name for the farming areas of the country like where we live) where people at least have access to food. (This article from The Guardian explains the situation quite well.)
All of these people have used up whatever savings they had, and many (perhaps most) of them didn’t receive any of the emergency funds promised by the Peruvian government. Many of the people who had emigrated to Lima from the outlying provinces over the past several years found themselves in such desperate situations that they began the long hike home into the mountains or the jungles… wherever they still had a small family farm. Those stories are heartbreaking to watch on the nightly news… Click here to see one that chronicles the account of a young mom who walked from Lima to a distant jungle town with her two young daughters. Unfortunately, it is highly possible that some of these travelers carried the virus home with them, bringing sickness into communities that had been untouched up to that point.
Which brings me to my second point in how the Covid pandemic causes more harm in developing countries than it has in the United States…
While Peru’s economic situation pre-pandemic had been improving, the health care system remained very precarious, to say the least. Medical negligence is common; I personally know three people who died as a result. The first time I saw this happen I questioned Ade about why no one would sue the hospital over the untimely death. He informed me that cover-ups would keep a lawsuit from going anywhere. Knowing that this is a fairly common situation in the local hospitals, most people avoid going there for help until they are desperately sick. And once they do end up in the hospital, patients often face the stark reality that the endemic corruption spreading through all levels of the government has left the hospital under-staffed, under-supplied, and in no way prepared to serve an onslaught of extremely sick people. This is what has happened in all of Peru’s largest cities, where many of the hospitals have basically collapsed. In the words of Graciela Meza, executive director of the regional health office in one of the hardest-hit areas of the jungle, “We only have our dreadful authorities to blame for their corruption and decades of chronic under-investment in healthcare.” (We are living a Catastrophe – The Guardian)
A final way in which this pandemic is hitting Peru much harder than it is the U.S. is in the education of the children. Students in the States were fortunate to be near the end of the school year when they suddenly had to transition to “homeschooling” for the last two months. The Peruvian school year was just beginning, and many of the kids hadn’t even gone to class yet. Most did not receive their textbooks, and many of the provincial education offices still don’t have enough books for the children in the tiny villages.
As the pandemic continues to worsen in Peru, the government is saying that schools will not open at all this year. Because of a lack of internet connections, online school is not an option, so the government is airing educational classes on TV stations; however, according to friends I have spoken to, this amounts to about a half an hour a day of education. And without any textbooks at home, there aren’t many options for parents (often under-educated themselves) to help the kids with homeschooling.
Teachers are supposed to be communicating with students via telephone, but even this is proving to be difficult for people like our friend Rolando, who was supposed to be teaching in a tiny village school this year. He still doesn’t have phone numbers for most of his students, and he can’t even go to their village to visit them. He is an innovative teacher, however, and is using his time to produce excellent education videos in Quechua, which you can see HERE on Facebook. Unfortunately, his own students won’t we able to learn from these videos until Rolando can make hard copies and take them to the village. And the harsh reality of all of this is that most of the children in distant mountain or jungle villages will basically just lose an entire year of education.
So, friends, this is the reality in Peru, and I’m guessing that it looks much the same in other developing countries around the world. I want you to know that, in writing this, I am not in any way belittling the pandemic situation the United States. I know that people have died from Covid there. I know that people have lost jobs and will lose businesses. I know that the end of the school year was frustrating for many families, and plans for next year are still up in the air. But I also know that the United States is not burdened by the endemic government corruption that plagues so many developing countries, destroying their economies and breaking down the health care and educational systems. For those people in the U.S. who have lost jobs or businesses, relief checks from the government really DO arrive in their mailboxes. People who get infected with Covid-19 in the States have a pretty good chance of surviving. And kids there have successfully finished the school year and are now free for the summer!
I also want you to know that I have not written this post to belittle Peru. I love this country, and I love her people even more. It pains me greatly to see so much suffering and feel so impotent to be able to help in a substantial way.
But I know that the greatest help we can offer to Peru is to pray…
- for the government to make wise decisions
- for God’s protection on the lives of innocent people
- for His provision of food and basic necessities for so many people
- for His wisdom for those of us who are “stuck” here to know how we can serve Him through serving Peru’s beautiful people.
Thank you for joining us in these prayers!
Below is a list of articles in English that I referenced in my post: