Puno is one of Peru’s poorest and most deprived regions. Although it is not yet the hardest-hit by Covid-19 (there have been five registered deaths so far), it has been badly affected by the lockdown that has been in place since mid-March. We asked Pat Ryan, who has worked for years in Puno and is the president of Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente, to write about the conditions facing people there. She replied with the following summary produced by DHUMA:

“The global Covid-19 pandemic has arrived in Peru, a nation marred by the historic evils of exclusion, discrimination, and racism, still unresolved after many centuries. Like in the rest of the world, the most vulnerable populations in Peru are the sectors most impacted and most disregarded, such as campesino (rural indigenous farmer) communities. Life in rural areas differs greatly from that in the city, but the authorities who proclaim broad, uniform decisions and policies ignore this variable, failing to acknowledge that urban dynamics are completely different from those of campesinos. They fail to take into account the traditional wisdom of indigenous communities in facing the pandemic, or in ensuring the harvest, thereby protecting life. Policymakers have failed to call upon the coalition of indigenous authorities and communities in confronting this global contagion.

Since 16 March of this year, the day social isolation was mandated in all of Peru, rural communities like all Peruvians complied with the government order, closing off all communications such as roads and highways connecting communities, for fear the virus would arrive in their homes and wreak havoc for their families and for others, worries exacerbated by news of deaths and contagion across the country and worldwide. The stay-at-home order only allowed for one family member to leave the home to buy food, medicine, and other urgent needs. Agricultural and livestock work cannot be done by just one person: it requires the participation of all of the men, women, and even children in the family. Vehicles must transport farmers and carry equipment to bring in the harvest and deliver a given percentage for sale in the cities. The daily life of farming communities is dictated by the rhythms of the laws of nature, of rain, of hail (planting and harvest), of wind (harvest and the selection of grains and seeds), of frosts and other natural phenomena. We live in constant ‘contention’ with the inclemencies of weather and plagues or worms.

Campesinos who raise livestock have only this season to fatten their animals for sale, and thereby guarantee the wellbeing of their families until the next rainy season; if they are unable to sell, the capital these cattle, sheep, and South American lamini represent will remain illiquid. The earth will not wait. Traditional communal systems for reaping products from the earth follow the seasons and the weather, a logic that defies the demands of government norms, policies, and directives. The harvest for sale, consumption, and the collection of seeds for the next season is at risk. If campesinos are unable to produce and sell their products now, they will be unable to do so for the rest of the year.

Puno, located on the high-altitude shores of Lake Titicaca, is home to numerous trout farms. The catch from these fisheries, during key dates such as Holy Week when the fish are ready for ‘harvest’, has also been blocked by the inability to transport fish to market and sell them to the public. As of this writing, the catch is still suspended. The feeding of the fish is also impeded by these critical circumstances for fishing communities.

At the same time, the cost of fruits, vegetables, and other products not produced in the farming region of Puno has risen precipitously.

Various ministers have warned that the coming weeks will be the most critical, and that we find ourselves at peak contagion nationally. The government has announced the need to extend quarantine, leaving open the possibility of further extensions, possibly through June. One worries how much the general public can stand, particularly those living in poverty and extreme poverty. The virus is not the only enemy they must escape; they must also avoid hunger.

In the cities, a large portion of the population works in the informal sector for subsistence-level income and directly depends on functioning markets and open public spaces. Under quarantine, their work has been halted, and with the extension of the quarantine, whatever small savings they may have had to feed their families will not suffice. These families, the majority of whom come from rural areas, migrated to the cities to pursue this informal labor. With the lockdown order, many have no choice but to leave, resulting in a mass exodus of displaced families returning to their rural communities; mass mobilization that demonstrates the suffering of the most deprived and ignored population. Desperate masses are on the move, on foot, in search of food and of shelter where they need not pay rent.

Food security, then, is one of the rights most threatened by the coronavirus. The survival of the majority who make up Peru’s lower economic strata is under daily threat. Authorities have no answers for poor families in the region and across the country seeking a way to live through the lockdown while meeting their most basic food needs. A desperate demand for an economic subsidy to cover the needs of the low-income majority has not been met.

The Peruvian health system finds itself at a tipping point. In cities with the most confirmed cases of infection, medical facilities are on the brink of collapse. The infrastructure of hospitals and clinics is insufficient and medical personnel are unprotected and unprepared to receive a massive influx of infected patients with the efficient help and attention they need. Authorities indicate that rural medical posts cannot be equipped with intensive care units and ventilators, as they do not meet the administrative requirements to function as top-level hospitals within the countries tiered clinical system; only hospitals in the most populous cities may be outfitted with such equipment. Add to this the lack of rapid and molecular test kits for evaluating patients, not only in rural areas but in the entire Puno region.

It is worth noting that private extractive industry remains outside the confines of the lockdown, as the work of mining corporations is considered an ‘indispensable activity’ that cannot be suspended. Mining companies have stated that they are taking measures to ensure the safety of their workers, but in recent days official communications from the Ministry of Health report cases of miners infected with Covid-19, indicating danger not only for workers but for their families and communities. Extractive industry is one of the most environmentally destructive sectors, causing damage to the air and, most notably, water. The indifference of those in power is a slap in the face to the vast majority of ordinary Peruvians.”