Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Sep 19, 2020
Peru remains in lockdown, But promise of vaccine brings hope

It has been six months since Peru was hit with its first case of the COVID-19 virus. By 2 September, 3,156,679 people had been tested, with 639,435 positive results and 28,607 deaths.<1>

These appalling numbers have impacted the country at its core and have pushed for new economic and social regulations and a ‘new normal.

New normal for Peruvian society

A mandatory social isolation that started in March is still in place, as of end August, meaning that citizens from the five worst affected regions (out of 25) and 20 provinces (out of 196) are only able to leave their homes to access essential goods and services or for activities like acquiring, producing or supplying food and other assistance to health centres. In the rest of the country, only children under 14 years and people in risk groups remain in quarantine. The use of a mask is mandatory in public spaces all over the country.

Additionally, a mandatory immobilisation order (curfew) is in place, which means that citizens cannot move on the streets between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. from Monday to Sunday. In the regions and provinces under mandatory quarantine, this order runs from Monday to Saturday from 8:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. Also, the curfew is imposed for all citizens nationwide on Sundays.

The lockdown has been difficult to follow for the majority of Peruvians due to several socioeconomic factors. Over 70 percent of the Peruvian workforce is informal,<2> meaning that they earn a daily income and are not taxed or monitored by the government. Informal employees do not receive health benefits and are often hired temporarily with no guaranteed working hours.

About half of all households do not have access to a refrigerator.<3> The lack of equipment needed to keep fresh food at home means that they are unable to store fresh food for extended periods of time and rely heavily on daily grocery shopping. Food delivery services in Peru are restricted outside of the big cities and the lockdown has had a strong impact.

Job losses in cities, especially the capital Lima, has pushed many Peruvians (and immigrants, such as Venezuelans) to return to rural areas. Since all regional transport was banned, large groups of people (about 170,000) made the journey on foot.<4>

Most Peruvians do not have a bank account.<5> As a result, when the government released a relief fund to the poorest households, around 8.6 million people had to go in person to government-owned banks to collect a cash compensation.<6> This led to long queues, where complying with social distancing measures was challenging.

Social distancing is not only hard to maintain at markets or banks but also in poor households, where large families live in single rooms. This is compounded by the fact that some homes do not have access to running water and rely on water collection points, where large groups of people gather.

Additionally, parts of the population still do not comply with lockdown measures and attend parties, football practices and other social gatherings, such as a recent gathering at a nightclub in Lima.<7>

At the same time, Peruvians have also shown a willingness to change and adapt to the situation in various ways. There has been a smooth transition to full-time virtual education through efficient capacity building initiatives at universities. Parents have adapted to follow the ‘Aprendo en casa’ (learn at home) scheme, through which government-created educational programmes are transmitted via radio and the state-owned TV channel.

Many citizens have turned to new business models to better navigate through the new normal, including masks production, fumigation services and online live concerts. Business owners have also become more tech savvy to reach out to consumers online, and neighborhood ’panaderias’ (bakeries) have implemented strict protocols such as checking clients’ temperatures before entering the establishment and offering sanitisation products.

The ‘rondas campesinas’ (self-assembled communal defense organisation of peasants) in the Cajamarca region created contingency plans without waiting for central government support. This plan included equipping their hospitals, limiting transport, promoting fumigations and applying an epidemiological fence in the main access areas. Similarly, citizens in Huacho (63,000 inhabitants), Huancabamba (30,000 inhabitants) and Iquitos (413,000 inhabitants) self-organised and collected money to build their own oxygen sources for treatment.

Recent government announcements

On 20 August, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra indicated that his government had connected with the COVAX Facility initiative, a multilateral effort led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, that will allow 6.6 million Peruvians to have access to a COVID-19 vaccine.<8> Peru must pay an advance of between 15 percent and 20 percent of the estimated cost of the vaccines by the third week of September.

In addition, the current administration is in direct contact with seven laboratories that are already in advanced stages of COVID-19 vaccine testing, with the intention of having Peruvian citizens participate in clinical trials. If these efforts succeed, Peru will acquire around 30.4 million vaccines from five different laboratories. This means that over 90 percent of the national population will have access to a vaccine. The health ministry is also working to cut the administrative processing time for vaccine access to about 15 days (from six months) and for clinical trial approval to one week.

The government is also coordinating with different private banks to create a more efficient system of delivering the economic support to needy families. An emergency decree has allowed the National Bank to open a basic account for free for any person to receive the government subsidies.<9> The government is also providing up to US$10.6 million to 26 province administrations as a transportation subsidy.<10>

The education ministry also announced that its aprendo en casa platform is available to 96 percent of homes nationwide, and plans were underway to cover the remaining households.<11>

The government has also approved an agricultural business support fund in addition to similar funds for tourism, micro and small businesses and the Reactiva Peru plan, which have been awarded US$8.4 billion to serve as a guarantee for loans to companies (93 percent of the beneficiaries will be micro and small businesses). 

Lessons learnt 

As with many countries around the world, the COVID-19 crisis caught Peru by surprise. Nevertheless, there are valuable insights from the efforts to handle this crisis that can be useful in the future.

At the regional level, the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research could become the lead organisation for a concerted effort to enhance the capacity of member states to better manage potential threats. Forecasting and policy co-creation will be useful tools to prepare for unpredictable or unforeseen events with extreme consequences. At the national level, protocols must be readied for a range of potential global catastrophic events, including natural and manmade disasters. A risk assessment office must be established, with a transdisciplinary team that is in charge of managing risk and developing the protocols. This office should feed into and work jointly with other risk centres in the Americas.

Investing in science (research, innovation and collaboration) must be a priority to prepare for future pandemics. Peru must also establish a science ministry.

Having bilateral transparent communication between the scientific academy and the government is crucial for evidence-informed policymaking. This communication should also be shared with citizens. These efforts can be fostered by the creation of a Science and Technology Office at the Peruvian parliament, much like as in the UK,<12> which conducts webinar trainings for academics to interact with the government or organizes horizon scanning studies to think about the future of governance.

Allocating a higher budget to the health sector is crucial to mitigate a pandemic. This financial support should go towards enhancing and increasing the equipment needed for intensive care units. The use of technology to promote an integrated health model is also mandatory since it will speed up the transfer of information among hospitals.

Understanding the role that people’s emotions play during a crisis is pivotal when designing how policies will be implemented. Knowledge and reason must be at the heart of political decision-making in Peru, as it is in the European Union.<13>

Communication on risks and new policies should be jointly produced by scientists, policymakers and citizens in a way that is concise, effective, innovative and that speaks to the people’s needs.

In a multicultural nation, information material must be available in languages and formats accessible to all. Peru provides COVID-19 regulations and recommendations in 21 indigenous languages ​​and variants,<14> which has allowed over 90 percent of the native population access to information in their own languages.

Finally, lessons from COVID-19 must be included in the educational curricula at secondary school and at higher education levels to educated youngsters on the best behaviours to follow during a pandemic or other crises.

This essay originally appeared in Rebooting the World

<1> Ministry of Health, Government of Peru, September 2, 2020.

<2> El Peruano, official government newspaper: “El 71.1% de los trabajadores en el Perú son informales”, April 2, 2020.

<3> Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática, Government of Peru: Peru Perfil Sociodemografico (2017).

<4> “Coronavirus: “Continúa el éxodo masivo de peruanos hacia las regiones”, America TV, April 26, 2020.

<5> IPSOS Group, “Bancarizacion del Peruano 2020”, June 24, 2020.

<6> Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Peru, August 20, 2020.

<7> Public Ministry, Government of Peru: “Comunicado del Ministerio Publico”, August 23, 2020.

<8> Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Peru on 20th August 2020.

<9> Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Peru, August 20, 2020.

<10> Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Peru, July 22, 2020.

<11> Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Government of Peru, July 22, 2020.

<12> The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK parliament.

<13> Joint Research Centre, European Union, October 11, 2019.

<14> Ministry of Culture, Government of Peru, April 8, 2020.

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Clarissa Rios Rojas

Clarissa Rios Rojas

Clarissa Rios Rojas is a Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk where she works at the interface of science and ...

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