Peru is a remarkable country. It possesses a breathtaking combination of the natural wonders, from the jungle to the Sierra, as well as the remarkable archaeological legacy of earlier civilisations, including the Inca Empire. For my first trip abroad since 2019 there could not have been a better destination.
When travelling I always try to discover a little about life beyond the corridors of the tourist experience, and having a reasonable level of conversational Spanish certainly helps in Hispanophone countries. A few days before we landed in Lima the Government of Peru eased some mask restrictions. This meant that from 1 October mask wearing is only mandatory ‘at health establishments, and in ground transportation vehicles‘. In effect, we experienced Perus at its most ‘normal’ since the early months of 2020. Continuing mask-wearing was certainly being upheld during a train journey to Machu Piccu. Unsurprisingly, in a country where 0.5% of the population died from COVID-19, the transition to pre-2020 behaviours has been more hesitant than in countries such as the UK.
During the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to ask people about their experience of COVID in Peru. It is strikingly different from the situation in Europe, especially from an economic perspective. There is also a dimension that reaches far back into the history of Peru, not least in the relationship between indigenous peoples and the conduct of the state. It is a salutary reminder that harrowing experiences of conquest and subjugation have profound and enduring legacies. Often these communities are economically disadvantaged and may have unresolved reservations about medicine delivered in ways that may appear to be at odds with traditional beliefs and treatments.
Whatever quarantine rules said, it’s hard for many Peruvians to stay home. Roughly 70% work in the informal employment sector, with little job security and no sick pay. Nearly 44% of homes don’t have a refrigerator, so families must go out often to get food. Busy markets have become hubs of infection.Ciara Nugent, ‘Why Peru’s COVID-19 problem spiralled – despite a strict lockdown’, Time Magazine, June 15 2020.
Nugent quotes Iván Hidalgo’s observation about the nature of decision-making during the crisis: ‘We’re seeing the measures designed in the capital collide with the reality of the country’. In Peru there was no state-funded furlough, at least not for those to whom I spoke. People were forced to survive as best they could. As tourism dried up, a major source of employment in the country was put on hold. I asked what that meant for various people, denied salaries and ‘tips’, and I heard about the resourcefulness of people suddenly denied their income. One drew on his early years growing up in a farm to breed ducks; another turned his hand to furniture making; and one guide returned to her family home where they opened a food shop. However, despite this resourcefulness, they all spoke about how hard the past two years had been, even if they and their families had not been affected too badly by illness and mortality. The tour guides were well-educated people, with wide networks of contacts and skill in several languages. I can only imagine how much more difficult life must have been for people with fewer resources, used to living hand-to-mouth in normal times.
The people of the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca demonstrated one approach by which traditional ways of life offered potential advantages in responding to COVID. The remarkable reed islands, constructed by the Uros people, allowed the community to sever links with the local city of Puno and focus on fishing and other forms of subsistence. Speaking to one of the leaders of a family community (pictured), known as a ‘President’, it was clear that their way of life enabled infection to be avoided. However, the loss of income from tourism, as well as a lack of access to education, left lasting damage to the people living this distinctive way of life.
Overall, my observations in Peru, and conversations with local people, have reminded me of the lamentable fact that the least-well resourced in society typically suffer repeated harm. It is entirely fitting that South American countries, with a sustained experience of socio-economic disadvantage, developed a form of theology which interrogates systemic disadvantage and energises practical responses to injustice. Liberation theology, notably pioneered by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, has had a mixed reception in recent decades. However, there is a growing interest in forms of liberation which are generated in specific communities experiencing particular forms of disadvantage. This includes a liberation theology of indigenous peoples, a constituency made up of between 5 and 8 percent of the world’s population.
‘Indigenous theology attempts to mobilize community cutting across class, caste, tribe, and gender barriers to promote values and structure that enhance life, reject the forces and practices that destroy life, and liberate them from bondage. Collective solidarity resistance with the victims of the system and people in pain is witness to the liberating power of God in Christ. The cross is the sign of solidarity. To witness Christ without resistance for justice has no meaning’.Longchar, W. (2013). Liberation theology and indigenous people. In The Reemergence of Liberation Theologies (pp. 111-121). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
For Gutiérrez, liberation theology arose out of a conviction in God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’. It is clear that during COVID the plight of the poorest in society was exacerbated. In Peru’s capital, Lima, one district, Cantagallo, is home to the majority of the city’s indigenous population. In May 2020 tests showed that 73% of the district’s inhabitants had COVID. Following the first death due to the virus the police established a cordon around the community. Given the severely limited resources of the district this placed a significant burden on the residents. Hearing of their plight, indigenous communities across Perus responded by sending traditional herbal remedies and other assistance. In June 2020 the Archbishop of Lima filled the Cathedral with pictures of those who had died from COVID, criticising a health system “based on egotism and on business and not on mercy and solidarity with the people”. Words alone will not change this reality, even if identifying the failings and their consequences is a first step in addressing an injustice. While the attention of the world has moved on from COVID to other challenges, it remains vital that the human cost of inequality and discrimination is not forgotten – nor the deep history which shapes the continuing marginalisation of indigenous peoples across the world.
To be continued…