Covid has been revealing in no uncertain manner how unequal access to services and the quality of what can be accessed – in healthcare above all – can have deeply unequalising effects. The latest dimension of this to attract attention is access to the internet.

The issue has been forced into the limelight by the economy minister’s statement on 30 July that she was proposing to investigate, along with the ministries of culture (Mincul) and of energy and mines (Minem), the possibility of allowing ‘virtual’ prior consultation. The precipitating case was a Buenaventura project, San Gabriel.

Such use of virtual proceedings is allowed under Decree 1500, which came into force on 11 May, and is designed to aid reactivation, post-Covid-19. While this provoked strong reactions at the time, this latest move has led to a storm of protest including criticism from the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), an organ of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The first and perhaps most obvious preoccupation was the lack of internet access for many remote communities and their lack of experience with the technology. But at a deeper level, working through the internet is an utterly alien way of working – in speed, transparency and attentive listening – for the communities deemed to have a right to prior consultation under ILO 169.

Various indigenous organisations have made strong statements. The MEF (Ministry of Economy and Finance), says Lizardo Cauper, president of AIDESEP, “sees prior consultation as a bit of bureaucracy to be got over.” In fact, he argues, it is a fundamental right crucial for the life of the communities.

Minem soon responded to pressure and announced that prior consultations in mining and hydrocarbons needed to be face-to-face.

Another dimension of the problems posed by virtual hearings has come to the forefront in the last three weeks relating to the peculiarly sensitive case of Tía María, Southern Peru’s proposed copper mine in Arequipa. At the end of May 2015, 17 farmers took part in a protest over the proposed mine and were arrested. Their case has been pending since then. A hearing began on 3 March this year but was interrupted by the lockdown.

The government then announced that legal proceedings would begin on 1 July, though without presence of the public. It was announced that there would be a virtual hearing of the case on 9 July.

The Fundación Ecuménica para el Desarrollo y la Paz, FEDEPAZ, is supporting five farmers, all of whom it considers have been arbitrarily criminalised in this case. FEDEPAZ has brought a complaint to the effect that there was a high risk that the required characteristics of a valid judicial process, such as immediacy and publicity, would not be fulfilled. A video conference could not, in its view, provide the required conditions of immediacy between the magistrates and the evidence or between the court and the accused. Nor without public participation could the hearing allow for the appropriate publicity/transparency. Further, it was unclear whether participants would have adequate opportunity to contradict their accusers where they wish to do so.

For these reasons, FEDEPAZ has requested a hearing with physical presence once the Covid-19 emergency is over. This has now been scheduled for 17 August, again virtually.

These controversies, and the degree of understanding and awareness they help produce, should have significance beyond Covid-19. Crises do both harm and good, and the impetus for a change in approach and even refocussed public investment might yet materialise.