Over the past week, Peru has gone into lockdown in response to the increasing number of cases of Covid-19. On top of the closure of borders and the suspension of international air, land and sea/river traffic, the Vizcarra government has imposed tight controls over all but the most essential movement and a night-time curfew. The military, police and serenazgo (municipal police) control the streets to enforce the shut-down. As one of our local correspondents wryly mentioned “we’re all under house arrest now”.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this draconian approach is to try to stop the virus spreading and thus reduce the demand on extremely limited hospital facilities. Peru’s hospital system is split between reasonably well-equipped private clinics (with very limited capacity) and a chronically ill-supplied public hospital system (with more capacity but very limited resources). Inevitably, all but a small elite will be doomed to be served by the latter.

As elsewhere, the lock-down excludes certain groups, including medical staff, the police, the army, people producing food, distribution workers, bank workers, people working in pharmacies etc.

As we went to press, the number of confirmed cases was 265 and the number of deaths reported 4. The vast majority of cases reported were in Lima. Though the number of cases is small by comparison with countries in Europe and Asia, the rate of increase is very rapid.

The government is aware that it faces a grim situation unless there is a speedy return to normality. The likelihood is anything but.  Conditions for proliferation in low-income neighbourhoods are evident, especially those without adequate access even to clean water.

By taking prompt action, President Martín Vizcarra will probably gain some political credit. The situation will effectively silence his adversaries while making it seem that something is being done. But if the crisis draws out over the longer term – as seems increasingly likely – that initial fillip is likely to disappear. The government will be blamed for not doing more to prevent people getting ill and dying.

The economic effects of the crisis are likely to be dire. Far from the 4% growth rate gaily announced a few weeks back, Peru – like many Latin American countries – is heading fast into recession. The longer the economic shut-down, the worse the likely consequences. The country may also suffer serious balance of payments issues as the value of exports to the rest of the world dries up. And fiscally, the government will face limits to the extent that it can use Treasury cash to alleviate the social and other problems that will emerge as unemployment rises.

On 20 March, Vizcarra appointed a new health minister, Victor Zamora, an expert in epidemiology.