What Peru Got Wrong in Its Response to the Coronavirus

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Despite more than three months of a strict quarantine, Peru is still suffering from the outbreak of COVID-19, and it is far from over.

At one point, Peru had the highest rate of deaths per million in the world and, according to Bloomberg, it could wind up the worst-hit economy as well.

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Peru hoped its strong initial response, which included a strict quarantine and a ban on domestic travel, would help the country avoid overwhelming its already precarious health system and contain the virus. But to date, more than 720,000 people have been infected and 30,000 have died. So, what did Peru get wrong with the coronavirus pandemic?

Having lived in Peru all my life, it is clear the pandemic brought to light problems that have lurked for many years.

In the 1990s, some free-market reforms put in place during an economic crisis brought unparalleled growth to the Peruvian economy. From 2004 to 2017, poverty fell 37 points to 21.7%. While this is a major improvement, about 40% remain on the edge of poverty—they are just one personal crisis away from poverty.

But corruption is a constant in Peru—tax dollars again have been mishandled, and the bureaucracy behind these failures has come to play a big role in the health crisis.

Between 2001 and 2019, the national health budget grew 139%, but this did not translate into a better public health system. Billions of dollars in hospital construction funds have disappeared because of purposeful mismanagement and incompetence.

The Antonio Lorena Hospital in Cusco was never finished and millions of dollars disappeared because of corruption and bribes. A hospital in San Martin was inaugurated with expired equipment and partially unfinished installations. A hospital in Moquegua flooded the first week it was opened and had to close.

This left Peruvians in a weak situation for the coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, there were around 500 ventilators and less than 1,000 intensive care unit beds for all of Peru’s 33 million people. Even today, we have only 1,500 ICU beds and more than 1,000 ventilators, clearly not enough given the population and the logistical complexities of Peru, the disconnection of cities and towns from each other, and the scarcity of oxygen and sanitizers.

We are also dealing with some newer problems. A strict quarantine meant that millions of people would not be working and were going to need help to feed themselves and their families.

The central government’s idea was to give vulnerable people money so they would be able to stay at home. Yet the execution was a disaster—from the data used to determine who should be eligible to the process of distributing the money—and many vulnerable people did not receive help.

Two months into the lockdown, a spokesperson for one of the largest groups of disabled persons said that a large portion of blind people did not get the help. There have been some efforts to include more people, but there are numerous complaints of individuals going multiple times to collect the money and being told that it’s not available or that there are technical difficulties.

The government is again trying to distribute these bonuses, but it is having many of the same problems, and the massive crowds of those trying to claim money have made banks into high-risk places for spread of the virus.

Curfews meant less time to shop for groceries, so big lines formed around markets. A random test at a popular market in Lima revealed more than 80% of the workers had the coronavirus. And the confusion because of the fast change of measures affected the safety actions people could take.

It is hard to make good public policy when you don’t have good data, and that is one of Peru’s biggest problems and likely to remain so in the future. There is no reliable data on testing or how many people have died of the coronavirus, and there won’t be for months.

Another obstacle in the response of the pandemic was the strained relationship between the private sector and the government. At first, the government thought it could handle the pandemic without help from private initiatives.

For example, a civilian bought a ventilator outside of Peru and could not get it through the border because of the government’s rule that only authorized specialists could import these machines. After a few months, the policy was reversed, and the private sector has become the source of many of the new ventilators and oxygen plants in the country.

A mining company offered to donate 20,000 liters of oxygen per week to the southern regions in May. The then-prime minister sent it through a tedious bureaucratic process, which delayed its arrival, then argued it didn’t meet the necessary standards.

Arequipa, one of the most populous regions in Peru, is severely affected by COVID-19 and could have used these donations. This donation was not approved until late July after a new prime minister took over.

There is responsibility in the private sector as well for not acting quickly, even without the support of the government, and in many cases not realizing that this was the moment to help the most vulnerable, not to look for the biggest margins of profit possible.

The reality is that in Peru everyone failed, from the government to the media, to the private sector. Decades of high levels of bureaucracy, misinformation, corruption, and incompetence have made it more difficult to overcome this crisis.

People are afraid, but the failures in confronting this crisis have pushed them out of their houses to some risky situations so they can work and feed their families. 

Peru needs to change how all levels of government (national, regional, and local) interact. But there are three issues that are most pressing—better information, a more efficient and transparent buying process, and a more connected country.

We need to recognize our mistakes and start making the changes necessary to prepare for subsequent waves of the coronavirus or other pandemics

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