11 June 2020, The Tablet

A lockdown letter from Peru

by Ed O'Connell

A lockdown letter from Peru

A man wearing a hand made face mask in Lima, Peru, 15 April 2020
Mariana Bazo/Zuma Press/PA Images

The President of Peru extended the lockdown until the 30th June.  The curfew in Lima is now from 9 pm to 4 am every day. There is an increase in the number of people allowed back to work, about 70% of the workforce, but families have to stay at home. It is an attempt to contain the rise in cases but as social distancing is only partially practiced, it is an uphill battle. I prefer to use the word “physical” distancing than “social” as the latter only compounds the situation, emotionally.

The total number of people with coronavirus in Peru is 170,039; of that 115,515 (68%)  are in Lima and the port of Callao, with the number of people infected on the rise around the country, especially in the northern coastal cities of Chiclayo, Trujillo and Piura and in the Jungle, where sadly it is also affecting the tribal people of the Amazon. Probably the real number is much higher than the official figures, both in cases and in deaths!  There have been 4,634 deaths from the coronavirus in Peru, again with Lima and Callao reaching 2,115 (46%). However, there has been a rise of nearly 10,000 in the number of deaths registered in these months compared to previous years! You can draw your own conclusion. 

The lesson to draw from the percentages is that Lima has better health facilities but even they, the public hospitals, are overrun now. The private clinics who treat COVID-19 (not all do) are charging enormous amounts of money. The small number of deaths, if the figures are accurate, to people affected, low relative to European countries, is probably because the elderly are mostly with their families and better protected than in a nursing or retirement home.

Last week a parishioner from my old parish of Misiones, for family reasons, had to travel north along the Pan American Highway, a desert coast road, some 800 kilometres, to Chepen near Chiclayo. All along the highway, both going and coming back, he witnessed hundreds and hundreds of people walking north. Peruvians on the way back home and Venezuelans with an even longer walk ahead. Men, women, children and even younger children and babies. They could stay in Lima no longer, they had nothing, and now as they walk towards home, they are totally dependent on the generosity of those they meet!

I accompany the Manuel Duato Special Needs School, a Columban project, where the teachers are in virtual contact with the parents and through the parents are working with nearly 400 children. Because most of our children are severely mentally challenged, the content is to make sure they have a routine in their day, reinforce the hand washing, social distancing, taking of exercise and practicing basic life skills. The autistic children, as well as all children under 12 years of age, have recently received special permission to go outside as they find confinement unbearable. We have helped 44 families of the school, who have little to no income and are desperate. We are now beginning to help them for a second time, with another s/100 (£24) to each family.

I also accompany the Warmi Huasi project, both in San Benito (a township on the northern side of Lima in the district of Carabayllo) and in the Province of Paucar de Sara Sara, high up in the Andes mountains of the department of Ayacucho. In both places we help children with their homework, like homework clubs but at a distance, and risk our stock of books for the reading clubs, so children have books to read at home. 

In both places we have prepared materials for the parents to reinforce the children and adolescents’  social skills and to remind them of the steps necessary to protect themselves from the virus. In Pausa, Ayacucho, we have a radio program, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for the near 4,000 children and adolescents and their parents. Some of the content is communicated in quechua, their local language. The team have also help by sending up a stronger wifi system to Pausa so children and adoloscents can pick up an improved signal and be able to participate in the “virtual” schooling.

In San Benito, there are families with no money, they live hand to mouth and there has been no work for the past eleven weeks due to the lockdown. 60 of these families fall outside of the help offered by the Government, and are desperate. We have helped the first group of 20 families, the most needy, with two amounts of s/50, whilst the second and third group, each of 20 families, have received s/50. Now we have helped all 60 families again with s/100 this time for each family. It is all a drop in the ocean but to those who receive, it means everything. We are also helping two communal kitchens with masks and gloves and foodstocks: between them they feed 60 children.

The coronavirus has reached San Benito, a number of cases, including families whose children take part in the Warmi Huasi activities. We have been able to help them, with medicines and food stocks. The Province of Paucar de Sara Sara has also a number of cases, from people who moved back from Lima.

I presently live in our Centre House of the Columbans, where I am the House Manager. All 11 of us have been in lockdown, now completing our eleventh week and facing another four weeks and a bit until the 30th June! Some were caught by the travel restriction. Six of us are in the vulnerable category, so we have to be extra careful and probably won’t be going out until August at the earliest! We are getting along well,  enjoying each others company and sharing out the chores of the house. During our masses and afternoon reflections we offer our prayers for all whom we know and work alongside. So feel included! 

As one missionary said a long time ago about Peru, many a sad moment but never a dull one! Take care and many blessings, Ed. 

Father Ed O’Connell is a Columban Father, born in Somerset and educated by the Salesians in Battersea. He has been working as a missionary priest in Lima, Peru for 38 years.




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