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COVID-19 in Peru

By Lucía Isabel Stavig
Lucía Isabel Stavig, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

COVID-19 in Peru

Peru Image – Taken by Lucía Isabel Stavig on the streets of Cusco, Peru.

I was doing fieldwork in a rural community in Anta, Peru when the president closed the borders and instituted quarantine. I stayed in the community for the first two weeks; but when Quédate en Casa was extended, I started to make tough decisions about the future. My heart was heavy with the knowledge that if I left, it would be for an indefinite period of time. I love the friends and family I have made while in the field and I knew I would miss my compadres and my god-babies, but when my newfound family sent me off, I knew I had made the right decision.

Over the preceding weeks, it had become quite clear to my host and I that if COVID-19 made it into the community, we would all be in real trouble. There is a posta médica, but it cannot and does not serve the community well. Most only go after the use of medicinal plants has not worked. Medicine is limited and the nurses are quite dismissive. I was afraid for my friends, and I was afraid for me. I have learned through my research that my friends and new family have an arsenal of medicinal plants at their disposal that could help them, but if anyone needed a ventilator, they would die. Many of my friends said that if it was their time, it was their time. Being here during COVID-19, I have learned a lot about attitudes toward death—mainly that in realities where medical care is scarce, death is always at the threshold, and is not seen as an enemy but as a constant possibility.

Also, I began to notice a shift in attitude toward my presence as a misti, white person. Going to the market, I noted that people were starting to look at me with more suspicion than usual. People have always been curious and a little suspicious; but as the quarantine dragged on, the tone changed. When comuneros returning from jobs abroad because of the pandemic started to get thrown out of close-by communities, I could feel my anxiety rising. I felt safe in the community...but then again, it had doubled and even tripled in size since I first arrived as people who lived and worked in various cities around Peru began to come home. Those people didn't know me. I was worried that all it would take was a couple of individuals getting infected for people to get scared and look for someone to blame. I feared not only for me, but for my newfound family. Would they be blamed and punished if it were decided that I was the problem? So, with a heavy heart, I decided to go to the city of Cusco to wait out the quarantine.

Though I am not in the community, I maintain regular contact with my friends via phone, Messenger, and WhatsApp. I ask how they are doing, and much to my relief, they mostly report being bored, but every once in a while, the news is quite interesting. For instance, trucks of food are going from the countryside to the city to feed starving family members. Many migrants in the cities work for their pan de cada día; if they don't work, they don't eat. Though the supply chain has not broken down, food prices have gone up due to speculation. Therefore, people stuck in cities with no work are having trouble accessing food. The mayor of the district where I was living coordinated a truck to take food to migrant families living in Lima. After much discussion of how the city supports life in the countryside, it is being revealed the opposite is also resoundingly true.

Without campesinos, none of us in Peru would be eating; and yet their work is grossly undervalued. The importance of agriculture and food sovereignty have become common topics of campesinos during quarantine—this at a time when many family farmers are giving up on agriculture because they lose more money than they make. The price of potatoes and other staple products is artificially low. Twelve kilos of potatoes are selling for s/5, or $1.50. That doesn’t even cover the price of cooking oil. Campesinos were already looking to plant more lucrative crops, like quinoa, wheat, or rye, but now the country is having a serious discussion about what it means to value agriculture and farmers.

The Ministry of Agriculture has created pop-up markets where campesinos can sell directly to the public so that middlemen cannot speculate. This option isn’t open to all families, however. Most families are struggling to find markets in which to sell their products. Without this cash, or the cash male members of the family usually make working as transportistas in Cusco, many families are finding themselves struggling to buy basic goods. It is amazing that, in this context, people in the countryside still send food to their families in the city. This is ayni, or reciprocal care/labor, at its most critical and beautiful: no matter how little there is to go around, it is shared.

Here in Cusco, people line up for blocks to get their government payments. With tourists gone, the livelihood of the majority of Cusqueños has dried up. My housemates and I wonder how long this situation can continue before people get desperate. Many people who worked in Cusco, Lima, Arequipa, etc. are walking back to their rural communities in search of food. Does COVID-19 walk with them? Hard to know. There are officially 130 cases in Cusco, though there is no one in the hospital. All those patients have recovered. But April 23rd, a plane of 300-odd Cusqueños who had been stuck in Lima landed in the city. They are being held in quarantine until it is clear that they do not have the virus. However, those coming home walking, hitchhiking, or hanging on to the back of fruit trucks (as one man coming home from Arequipa explained he did) are not being tested.

On the same day, the quarantine was extended for another two weeks. The last two times extensions were announced, a flood of people left cities and made their way home. I am sure this extension will be no different. While I worry about the spread of COVID-19, I also recognize that this homecoming is changing community life in good ways as well. With the influx of able-bodied laborers, ayni, or reciprocal labor, is coming back. When there were not enough people to help with harvest, families had to pay for laborers to come help them. With this influx of people, families can again lend out their labor to one another. One day you, another day me. COVID-19 is both a moment of fear and renewal.

This crisis is revealing just how fragile social mobility is in the Andes. I worry for my friends in university or pre-university academias. Will they be able to go back? Or is this it for them? It is unclear what will happen. Young professionals have been part of a generational transition toward a general acceptance and pride in Quechua and Andean culture. How will COVID-19 affect this change?

For its school-age population, Peru has instituted a distance-learning program so that students don't lose the year. But the reality is that there are not enough computers, internet, or radios to make this work. There are other issues with "Aprendo en Casa" which I outline here in an article I wrote for Noticia SER.

No one knows how this will end and what the post-COVID world will be like. But one thing is clear here in the Andes: access to land along with food sovereignty are taking on renewed importance in the lives of campesinos. Where these realizations and discussions will go, only time will tell.