Virus Exposes Weak Links in Peru’s Success Story


Deep-rooted inequality and graft have thwarted the steps Peru took to prepare for its response to the pandemic.

Credit…Ernesto Benavides/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LIMA, Peru — President Martín Vizcarra followed the best advice when the coronavirus arrived in Peru.

He ordered one of Latin America’s first and strictest lockdowns, and rolled out one of the region’s biggest economic aid packages to help citizens stay home. He shared detailed health data with the public, rushed to add hospital beds and ventilators and increased testing.

With robust public coffers and record-high approval ratings, Mr. Vizcarra’s centrist government appeared well prepared to face the pandemic.

Yet instead of being lauded as a model of disease control, Peru has become one of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots — its hospitals overwhelmed, its people fleeing the cities. The crisis has marred Peru’s veneer of economic progress, exposing the deep-rooted inequality and corruption that have thwarted its pandemic response.

“They asked us to stay at home, but a lot of people have no savings so that was impossible. They asked us to wash our hands, but one in three Peruvian households has access to running water,” said Hugo Ñopo, who works for a Peruvian research group, Grade. Only half of Peruvian homes have refrigerators, he said, forcing many families to return daily to crowded markets, a major source of contagion.

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Credit…Sergi Rugrand/EPA, via Shutterstock

Peru’s tragedy is unfolding amid a broader explosion of the virus in Latin America, which has turned from a haven to an epicenter of the pandemic over the past two months. About 1.5 million people in Latin America have tested positive — and experts say the real number of infections is much higher.

The numbers are still rising sharply and the worst appears to be far from over. With winter arriving in the southern part of the region and hurricane season in the northern part, the World Health Organization warned this week that these adverse weather conditions could lead to a new spike in infections in Latin America and hinder its pandemic response.

Peru has had about 6,000 confirmed Covid-19 deaths and more than 200,000 infections, and experts say those numbers understate the true extent of the pandemic. In May, the death rate in Peru from all causes was twice as high as the average of recent years, according to data compiled by The New York Times, suggesting a coronavirus death toll two to three times the laboratory-confirmed figure. Many with symptoms die without being tested.

The ferocity of the outbreak in Peru rivals that in neighboring Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro — unlike Mr. Vizcarra — has largely ignored expert advice and has refused to take steps to control the contagion.

“Results haven’t been exactly what we expected,” Mr. Vizcarra said last month. “This isn’t just a health or sanitary crisis, but a social and economic crisis without precedent.”

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Credit…Peruvian Presidency

Before the pandemic, things were looking up for Eduardo José Domínguez, 29, who managed a sandwich shop on the outskirts of Lima, Peru’s capital. But when the lockdown closed the store, he took odd jobs as a carpenter or night watchman to pay the bills, working up to 15 hours a day until he got so sick with Covid-19 symptoms that he could barely walk.

“He was just trying to provide for his family,” said his wife, Ana Ponte.

For days, she said, she called for medical help as her husband gasped for air, but was told that hospitals weren’t taking new patients. On the day he died, she tried in vain to breathe life back into him, while waiting for an ambulance that came too late to help.

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Credit…Ernesto Benavides/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Peru’s swift descent from regional success story to calamity has demoralized its 32 million citizens and provoked national soul-searching.

Years of strong economic growth fueled by mining and agricultural exports, as well as prudent financial policies, had turned the country into a rare bright spot in stagnating Latin America. Under a string of pro-business presidents, millions of Peruvians escaped poverty in this century, allowing them to send children to private schools, install running water or start small businesses.

But the lockdown has exposed the fragility of Peru’s economic progress, said Pablo Lavado, an economist at the Pacific University in Lima. Two decades of economic growth lifted many incomes but brought few stable jobs and little health care investment, reducing the effectiveness of President Vizcarra’s pandemic measures.

Mr. Lavado said many Peruvians find themselves in the same situation as Mr. Domínguez — forced to risk catching the coronavirus, rather than stay at home and slide into poverty and hunger.

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Credit…Reuters

“Here we were congratulating ourselves in Peru for starting to be a middle-class country,” he said. “But it turns out our middle class is very vulnerable, very fragile.”

Another obstacle has been the entrenched corruption that Mr. Vizcarra vowed to tackle when he took office two years ago. Three former presidents of Peru have spent time in jail in connection with an ongoing bribery investigation, as has the opposition leader. Another former president committed suicide last year to avoid arrest and yet another is imprisoned after multiple convictions for human rights violations, embezzlement and abuses of power.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

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      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Anti-corruption prosecutors have opened more than 500 inquiries since the lockdown began on March 16, most often looking into reports that officials pocketed money that was supposed to pay for food aid or personal protective equipment. Two dozen cases involve the police or armed forces.

Aid programs have not reached many people who need them. Out of work and fearful of the virus in crowded cities, Peruvians by the tens of thousands have streamed back to their home villages, many of them on foot. Some people have taken to begging door to door.

Among the most vulnerable are the nearly one million Venezuelan migrants who had flocked to Peru from their devastated homeland since 2016 in search of better lives. Ineligible for government stipends and lacking nearby family networks to fall back on, thousands of them have made the arduous trek back to Venezuela.

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Credit…Ernesto Benavides/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Domínguez, who arrived in Peru two years ago, was among the Venezuelans who stayed.

He had earned enough that he and Ms. Ponte had a second child last fall, a decision they had postponed for years. This year, he had planned to visit Venezuela with his cousins, eager to show off his newborn son.

When an ambulance reached their home, minutes after he had died, the medics told Ms. Ponte that they had no tests to confirm that he had coronavirus; he would be one of the legions of likely victims not included in the official tally. And they said they had nowhere to store his body.

“Help didn’t arrive. It didn’t arrive. I was crying and screaming for help but no one would come,” Ms. Ponte said, weeping as her husband’s body lay in a bag outside the room where she sat on a bed with her 10-year-old son and 8-month-old baby.

“He was everything to us.”

Mitra Taj reported from Lima, Peru, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela.

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