At the time of writing, Peru has the second highest number of people infected with COVID-19 (94, 933) in Latin America, only behind Brazil, and the fourth in regard to the number of deaths (2,789), only behind Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador—the first two countries with a larger population and territorial extension, and, in the Brazilian case, with a president that has refused to take proper measures against the pandemic. These numbers sharply contrast with the fact that Peru was among the first countries in the region to close its borders and was the first to adopt compulsory social isolation (BBC 2020). What happened, then? Why do numbers not reflect the actions taken by the government?
I will reverse the order of these questions and formulate the hypothesis that, in the Peruvian case, the numbers actually reflect a positive scenario in light of what we know about the country’s institutional quality. In other words, the pandemic could have taken on apocalyptic overtones here if timely decisions had not been made.
Why aren’t we seeing better results? Undoubtedly, there are several conditions—structural, circumstantial, internal, external, psychological, sociocultural, etc.—that produced these outcomes. Here, I will elaborate on only two structural factors related to the State: articulated planning at the higher levels, and the capacity for implementation and monitoring. Additionally, I will briefly comment on some internal and psychological/sociocultural factors that may allow us to better understand what happened.
Previous experience in crisis management is important for planning. Peru is no stranger in this area due to natural phenomena (e.g. El Niño, earthquakes, abrupt cold weather), its infrastructure deficit (e.g. communication systems and other technology), social conflicts, the prevalence of informal markets, and the crisis of political parties. We face crises of various kinds and degrees on a regular basis; however, there has been almost no data collected and systematized at the multisectoral and interregional levels (lack of articulated response plans and protocols, with division of tasks and responsibilities between the Executive and the different levels of government).
This is reflected, for example, in the absence of databases on the composition and characteristics of the population, which diluted the efforts of direct economic aid by the State (RPP 2020); the absence of protection and detection materials (a situation which was worsened by the international increase in demand and the disadvantage of countries with fewer resources, compared to stronger economies); as well as delays in its provisioning.
As substantial evidence, we find the lack of presence of other entities. public belonging to the disaster management system, as well as the need for the government to replace Minister of Health Elizabeth Hinostroza (Gestión 2020) a few days after the quarantine began, and then the Minister of the Interior, Carlos Morán (Fowks 2020)—two key sectors in managing health crises.
The removal of ministers is a clear sign of institutional fragility in those two key sectors. The country again relies on public figures when it is truly the organization itself that is called to lead efforts under these circumstances, regardless of the politician in charge. The absence of other public agencies demonstrates a high degree of centralization within the Executive Branch, which results in leaving aside public servants who may be better trained to handle technical matters (on this point, see the interview with Gisella Orjeda in Camacho 2020).
With the State’s implementation and monitoring capabilities, it must be highlighted that this is the first time in the country’s history that transit has been affected in its entirety and for such a period of time. We have witnessed the State’s lack of capacity to enforce the law. Just in the capital city, Lima, the number of police and military officers keeping guard on main streets decreased dramatically after the first fifteen days of the lockdown (Machacuay 2020), and it was evident that the necessary resources and protocols were missing. The same can be said for border control between regions.
To better understand the current situation, we must take into account some essential psychological and cultural factors: (a) the citizens’ distrust in the State (alleviated by the government’s communication strategy, despite the political isolation of the president; La República 2020); (b) the lack of self-control, especially among individuals living in coastal areas and the Amazon (e.g. Lima, Lambayeque, Piura, Loreto; AS Perú 2020); (c) little knowledge and poor habits concerning hygiene (e.g. hand washing and use of masks; Zurita 2020); and (d) disregard for social distancing requirements.
Among the internal factors that negatively impacted the situation, we must highlight (a) the informality of the economy, manifested above all in self-employment (INEI 2018), which (in combination with restrictions with transit restrictions) harmed a group of citizens who maintained a subsistence economy (informal employment reached 52.4% in 2017) and caused their displacement in the “walkers” phenomenon (Reuters 2020), helping the propagation of the virus to other regions; and (b) corruption (Miñán 2019a), especially among local and regional governments, reflected in the public contracts awarded during the state of emergency.
Notwithstanding the above criticisms, it should be mentioned here the role played by traditional forms of organization in controlling the spread of the virus, such as the peasant patrols that helped monitoring the curfew in rural areas—arguably more effectively than regular law enforcement agencies. These groups draw from their experience during the late-1980s and early-1990s, when they supported the fight against terrorist groups. In this way, significant results have been obtained in regions such as Cajamarca, Ayacucho, and Cusco, among others (populations with experience in complying with curfews; Andina 2020). Looking forward, it would be useful to properly evaluate the influence of weather factors in facilitating social isolation in such mountainous areas, as opposed to the north coast and the jungle that enjoy much warmer weathers.
Among the structural factors that had a negative impact, we can mention (a) the fragmentation of the public health system (i.e., the Ministry of Health, health agencies of the armed forces and the police, and the social health insurance; Cabani 2019), together with the lack of coordination with the private sector, the lack of legislation in this regard; (b) the difficulties in gathering reliable data on the operational capacity of each actor in the system; (c) the local prevalence of diseases such as tuberculosis, which obviously exacerbate the consequences of COVID-19 (Peru is the second country with the highest number of cases in the Americas; OPS 2018); (d) the deficit of healthcare infrastructure and equipment; (e) the deficit of health professionals, especially in regions other than Lima; and (f) a deficit in household appliances for food preservation in households with fewer resources (Panamericana 2020).
Finally, let us express hope that, as a country, Peru and its citizens could use this opportunity to bring about structural changes, consider the need for a ‘ministry of planning,’ or strengthen the National Center for Strategic Planning (CEPLAN; Miñán, Whitney 2019b) and its coordination with other actors involved in risk and disaster management. As the interference of the Ministry of Economy (Alarco 2019), whose focus on fiscal equilibrium responds to other interests, has effectively choked our capacity for strategic planning, it is necessary to make it independent from that sector if we want to improve the articulation of the State apparatus and be prepared for other emergencies in the future.
Another positive aspect of strengthening strategic planning is taking advantage of opportunities in innovation and technological development. During this crisis we have seen the main universities in the country, as well as some public companies, engaged in the challenge of upgrading their obsolete equipment, or developing the production of protection and diagnostic material to help alleviate the deficit in the existing supply (UNMSM 2020). These conditions can be just a good sign, be temporary, or remain well-intentioned if public policies that give sustainability to these initiatives are not developed at the same time. It is necessary to implement a model of like the one developed by the Triple Helix, which enables the conjunction of interests and the articulation of the State, the academy and the industry, in order to prepare ourselves for future crises and improve our competitiveness. This becomes more relevant in the current context if we understand that the world will tend towards a new era of protectionism and the development of strategic industries in preparation for similar situations. Additionally, the change in social dynamics will generate new necessities and consumption patterns that will demand more dynamism from the market.
22 June, 2020
(Translated by Joseph Poszgai)
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Angelo LINDO CARDENAS is a Peruvian political scientist with over twelve years of experience in various public agencies. He is currently in charge of the Budget and Planning Office of the Peruvian Institute of Sports (IPD).
Angelo Lindo Cardenas. 2020. “Reflections on the fight against COVID-19 in Peru” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.