Five months ago, President Martin Vizcarra received plaudits both in Peru and abroad for his government’s decisive action in seeking to confront Covid-19. Now, with indicators showing that the pandemic is getting worse, not better, his administration is subject to increasing criticism that its strategy for containing the virus is simply not working. At the same time, the economy is going through the shredder (see PSG article).

In this context, the Catholic Church last week unveiled proposals of its own that implicitly criticise the top-down approach taken so far. The Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) did much the same. Meanwhile, notwithstanding cabinet changes, Vizcarra’s previously high popularity ratings are slipping fast.

The latest figures (21 August) from the Ministry of Health show the official numbers of those infected by the virus have increased to 576,067 and the death toll has reached 27,245. The ministry, however, acknowledges that the real figure of deaths may be much higher, possibly 40,000. The ‘R factor’ which measures the speed at which the pandemic is expanding, has risen substantially in the last few weeks. It is well over 1 in most of the country, and very close to 1 in Lima. The speed of contagion in the sierra in particular casts doubt on the idea that altitude may be an obstacle to contagion.

In this context and amid growing public disquiet about the policies emanating from government, the Catholic Church has announced its own strategy, emphasizing the need for a much closer relationship between government and civil society. The Cardinal Archbishop of Huancayo, Pedro Barreto, outlined his plans to the Bishops Conference on 20 August, and talks with the government are due to begin this coming week with government under the auspices of the National Accord (Acuerdo Nacional). The Accord is designed to bring together political parties, civil society and government to debate key policy matters.

The president of the Bishops Conference, Msgr Miguel Cabrejos, within the sort of diplomatic language used in state-church relations, was quite outspoken. “The politicians need to comprehend that their strength lies in serving the population. They are not there to tell the people what to do, but to understand their needs and do what they tell them to do”. In his reply Vizcarra said that “we will receive each and every one of his proposals with thanks because we know that they are initiatives that seek the best for the country”. Since then, the official discourse has centred on the possibility that Peru will have access to a vaccine early next year, a questionable proposition.

The Church’s proposals are called ‘Resucita Perú’. The very name carries with it some criticism of the government’s programme ‘Reactiva Perú’ which is widely viewed as having been over-generous to the business community at the expense of the wider society. The economic implications of the lock-down are now making themselves felt in that wider society. Last week, the National Statistics Institute (INE) announced that 6.7 million Peruvians had lost their jobs in the second quarter of the year, of whom many will remain unemployed. Poverty rates are set to leap as a consequence.

The work of ‘Resucita Peru’ in designing concrete proposals will be divided into five commissions: integral health, science and technology, legality and law, community solidarity, and communications.

The Defensoría del Pueblo also launched a critical offensive last week that paralleled that of the Church. On 18 August, the Defensoría wrote to Vizcarra stating that it has been social organisations “that have been substituting for the various services that the state has failed to provide”. It rejected the idea that contagion has been caused by irresponsibility and disorganisation by people on the ground.

Both these critiques of the government’s performance point to longstanding deficiencies in the ways in which the Peruvian state works. Its involvement is typically highly vertical and poorly integrated into the everyday activities of ordinary people. There remains a high degree of centralisation in decision making and a culture whereby decrees and laws are signed but with little concern for their effective implementation. Opinion polls continually point to a lack of confidence in state institutions, particularly those of central government. Meanwhile sub-national tiers of government (regional, provincial and district) are perceived as inefficient and corrupt.

The Church’s proposal to forge closer links between government and civil society, using the Church as a catalyst, is to be welcomed. But it is easier said than done. We have borne witness in recent months to grass-roots responses to Covid-19, not least in the Amazon jungle where indigenous peoples have organised off their own bat to protect their communities, frequently from the activities of state officials themselves. But civil society in many other places in today’s Peru is fragmented and poorly represented, something which has been made far worse by the effects of the pandemic.

The Peru Support Group will be organising a webinar on 5 September in which our members and supporters are very welcome to participate to discuss policies and practices related to Covid-19. This is the first of five webinars around central issues in today’s Peru.