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Lima: After this crisis passes, we shouldn't go back to normal

19 days into her quarantine, Maite Bustamante de Almenara, a anthropologist from Peru, hasn't stopped worrying about how her country is going to overcome the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis exposes inequalities and vulnerability in Peruvian society, but also the lack of political will to properly address societal challenges prior to the current situation.

Everything changed very quickly. One day we saw news of a virus frightening people in other parts of the world, very far away from here. The following days we saw it spread across the map and soon we realized that it would eventually reach us. We had no idea how our lives would change in the following days. Between jokes we made very clumsy efforts to stop greeting each other with a kiss and hand sanitizer began to disappear from supermarkets. While we melted in the middle of the summer, we cheered each other up by saying that the Coronavirus doesn’t like warm weathers, and then changed the conversation to happier topics.

There was not one a single case of coronavirus reported in Peru yet and the media was no longer talking about anything else. Such monopoly was criticized by many with just causes who were fighting to get a little attention from the government. Around those days, there was already a lack of resources to deal with a dengue epidemic in the Amazon region, which had over 12,000 infected, and a group of children who got leukaemia from mining contamination had been camping in front of the Ministry of Health alongside their mothers for almost a month demanding health care. That was the backdrop of a common month in a country used to having people living in the anguish of precariousness. For them, the reaction of the government and the media was an unequivocal sign of one and only one thing: that this crisis, among all crisis, would also affect the elites.

Photo by Maite Bustamante de Almenara

Indeed, among the first infected was a child from one of the most expensive private schools in Lima, who had just returned from a trip to Europe and whose father was the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Peru. The same minister who had refused to meet with the mothers of the children with leukaemia coordinated personally the measures to be implemented with the managers of the infected child’s school. The social networks of progressives and academics burnt with rage and then calmed without changing practically nothing.

The next day (March 7th) was the demonstration for women’s day and the coronavirus still didn’t seem enough of a reason to stop participating. Being a woman in a country where there is a femicide every other day and where only in the last month had been reported 464 sexual violations to minors, I didn’t think it was too much. We were a few thousand people, mainly women, marching side by side without masks or gloves. We didn’t appear on any front-page and the articles that covered it didn’t have any significant impact. The next day everything was still about the coronavirus and we were starting to understand the risks that the virus implied.

Terrible news started coming to us, mainly from China and Italy; WhatsApp audios from the sister of someone you know who lives in Europe and warns us to get ready.  We found out that in China they built a hospital in 10 days and remembered that here the elderly queues for hours since early morning to make an appointment to receive medical care who knows how many months later. They asked us to trust the health system and we could only think of the news of people who had their wrong arm amputated. The days passed and Italy fell more and more in crisis, and we had nothing worthy of comparison to make us think that here things would be different.

'They asked us to trust the health system and we could only think of the news of people who had their wrong arm amputated'

I spent the next week applying to jobs while in the background of my head echoed that in Peru 43 percent of children under the age of three are anaemic, that 9 percent of people don’t have water and drainage at their homes, that around 20 percent of population is considered poor for living on less than 92 euros a month. I tried not to do the math and at times I managed to concentrate. Finally, I felt that I was moving forward; after months looking for a job, I managed to schedule a job interview for the following Monday and a meeting with a former boss on Tuesday.

On the afternoon of Sunday 15th (9 days after the first case was reported) the president gave a message to the nation in which he announced the closure of the borders and the beginning of a mandatory 15 days long national quarantine. Permission was granted to continue operating normally only to banks, pharmacies, business that guarantee basic needs and mining companies. International media congratulated the country for its quick reaction and urgently called for similar measures to be implemented in their countries in order to prevent the collapse of their health systems. They failed to understand that such was never our fear; we did the best we could, knowing very well that our health system it’s been long collapsed. I ended that day saying goodbye to my boyfriend. We agreed to meet again in four days, although I had the feeling that this wasn’t going to be possible. 

'I ended the day saying goodbye to my boyfriend. We agreed to meet again in four days, although I had the feeling that this wasn’t going to be possible'

The next day my two scheduled meetings where cancelled indefinitely. With discourage I heard the voice on the phone telling me to call to reschedule the interview when the crisis is over. On the following hours were announced the undefined deferments of many job offers and social networks were filled with layoff stories. Many friends lost their jobs and I felt that I was starting over from scratch again. The dream of moving out of my parents’ house resembled once more the mirages of water on the highway.

I decided to focus on the immediate: making it through the quarantine. In my house we are five adults, my almost three years-old niece and three dogs. We divided the chores and some spaces. By the end of the second day I had already cleaned, cooked and tidied; finished the series I was watching, started an urban garden, was up to date with national and international news and I knew how all my friends were. Sure enough, I was anxious, and I wasn’t the only one. My friends too wanted to climb the walls. One confessed me that she depilated her legs with tweezers, and I lost count on how many enrolled in online courses. I guess that to some extent we were detoxifying from life in Lima; from its traffic and its noise, from the rush and the need to be always vigilant, but above all, from that collective psychosis that keeps us feeling guilty for never being productive enough.

But it was more than that. Submerged in the empty days we were hunted by questions for which we had no answer: what will happen to all the people who need to work to eat? If the crisis continues, how is this city of 11 million people that doesn’t produce its own food going to be supplied? Will we depend on the peasants, those who overrun the reports of the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of our population? Or, as across our history, will we be rescued by a rich country in exchange for the precarization of the work of the next generations? 

'Submerged in the empty days we were hunted by questions for which we had no answer'

That afternoon I went grocery shopping and felt as if I was in a parallel world. There were fewer cars on the street than on the first of January. Suddenly, everyone (except me) had masks and gloves. People dodged each other as if we were all infected and there was neither a fruit nor vegetable in the supermarket. The empty shelves churned my stomach. I went back home and into my room without feeling like talking. I woke up sick, not from coronavirus but from anguish. I really needed a break. 

The following days I tried to disconnect as much as I could. I slowed down and got lost in the quarantine time, a time very much alike to the days when as a child I sat on the floor to look at the dust particles in the light of the window. My house felt as if it was transported to a distant world, bewitched by that silence so unknown in Lima, above which we were beginning to hear birds. I went back to reading literature and feeling calm. I enjoyed of all the splendour of my niece and was able to see the first leaves of my tomatoes coming out. I slept a whole night and a whole day and, when I woke up, I found that my dad was playing the guitar again. To put my mind in order, I went up to the roof, where the wind is fresh, and I gave myself to which were becoming the last rays of sun of the summer.

My house felt as if it was transported to a distant world, bewitched by that silence so unknown in Lima, above which we were beginning to hear birds'

Little by little my strength recovered. Grateful and fully aware of the enormous privilege that it is to have a space and a time to process emotions in the midst of a pandemic and, above all, in this country; I decided to start over, although this time in a healthier way. I found hope in agroecology and began to imagine possible projects. With the ideas still very much in draft, I looked for someone to talk to about them and, without needing to leave the house, I found nine women with similar interests who, like me, believed that this was the time to start looking for alternatives. In less than a week we were on a Zoom call forming a group of activists and speaking about food sovereignty. Nothing gave me more hope, and although we just met, I could see how they also lean on the group to cope with the whole situation in a better way. As the days passed, I dared to think again about my work aspirations and the projects I have with my partner, and saw that, like me, many were emerging from the rubble of anguish with new ideas, empathy and realism.

Meanwhile, the dreaded crash that had us closing our eyes and clenching our teeth, had not yet arrived. In those days the government had become more and more strict with preventive measures. Seeing that many didn’t respect quarantine (some out of necessity, others out of selfishness) on the second day the president put the army on the streets, forbade people to walk together, banned the circulation of unauthorized vehicles and imposed curfew from 8 pm to 5 am. Likewise, he informed that a bonus of 102 euros would be given to every poor family. On day 11, he announced the extension of the quarantine until April 12th, and four days later brought forward the start of the curfew at 6 pm. During those days it was also reported that an economic bonus would be given to independent workers whose families had not benefited from the previous bonus, and it was shown that spaces had been conditioned to attend more patients and house homeless people.

Finally, on April 2nd the president declared mandatory the use of masks in public spaces and further limited circulation, designating that only men could go out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; only women on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and that on Sundays no one could leave their houses. Never before in my life have I seen the government being so proactive, practical and creative in its solutions. It was really impressive and reassuring.

'Never before in my life have I seen the government being so proactive, practical and creative in its solutions. It was really impressive and reassuring'

But not everything was encouraging. Unfortunately, there was no lack of reminders of those wounds that still corrode us from the inside; those signs of a conservative and post-colonial country that keeps lagging us behind. First, the Congress gave impunity to the military patrolling the streets, stating that they could not be tried for any abuse nor murder that they commit. Soon enough, amid the applause of many, began to circulate videos of the military forcing the detainees to do push-ups and dance, and even videos of them forcibly arresting people from inside their homes for no apparent reason (among them an opposition journalist). Then, the evangelicals that successfully lead the movement that prevents the legalization of abortion, accused the president of wanting to “homophobize Peru” for saying that in the implementation of the days of men and women, gender self-identification will be respected and transsexuals will not be discriminated.

In the meantime, a newspaper published an article by a lady from one of those still way-too-feudal Peruvian families (the one that controls 78 percent of the national news market) in which she calls her domestic servant “a son of a bitch” for going to her home during the quarantine (as it was her right) and leave her unaided on a 20 hectares’ site and in a house that, as she describes, is full of champagne and luxurious food. To complete the picture, in the first 17 days of quarantine, 43 sexual violations were reported (27 of them to girls) and there were more than 5,000 accusations of gender violence.

'In the first 17 days of quarantine, 43 sexual violations were reported and there were more than 5,000 accusations of gender violence'

Today I write on the 19th day of quarantine and I am pleasantly surprised that, in the midst of everything, we continue to have the reins on the hands. There is no shortage of food and, although unfortunately there are already 1,595 confirmed infected and 61 deaths, we know that things could be much worse. I have practically nothing to criticize the government on in its handling of the crisis (except for having given impunity to the military). However, seeing this incredible response capacity leaves me a lot to think about how we handle normality.

The level of vulnerability with which the pandemic has found us is really worrying, and looking at the capabilities that the government is deploying now I can only confirm that this is a problem of political will. The lack of urgency with which those living in perpetual crisis are normally cared for is inhumane, as well as it is the lack of strategic planning. The health personnel and the peasants, who today are called “heroes”, are really victims of the deplorable state of these fundamental sectors; they are the living image that reminds us that those making the decisions in this country are not cared for in public hospitals.

I haven't stopped worrying how we are going to get out of this crisis and what will happen next, although I already feel more prepared to face it. I am afraid that, after the crisis is over, those who can, will return to the comfort of their private schools and insurances, and the welfare of the rest will continue to remain conditioned to an economic growth that doesn’t prioritize them. I am afraid that the most vulnerable will continue to be put as cannon fodder and their lives will still be worth less than those of the rest. I am afraid that the creativity that we now see among our rulers will be silenced to go back to following recipes that were not designed for us. And I am afraid that our culture will continue to celebrate violence and will remain used to having people living in misery.

'I am afraid that the creativity that we now see among our rulers will be silenced to go back to following recipes that were not designed for us'

I really wish that we overcome this crisis but, for our future well-being, I really hope that we don’t return to our former normality.

This story was shared by Maite Bustamante de Almenara, a Peruvian anthropologist who works on subjects related to poverty, education, indigenous populations and public policies.

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