SEATTLE, Washington — As the world began bracing for the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra reacted by imposing a strict lockdown before the country had a single death from the virus. Despite his decisive measures, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on Peru. From April 27 to Aug. 31, the country recorded at least 150 deaths from the virus daily. At some points, the country has had the world’s highest death rate from COVID-19. On top of the extreme loss of life and pressure on Peru’s healthcare system, lockdown measures have caused Peru’s economy to contract more than any other country.
There are multiple factors that have enabled COVID-19 to cause so much damage in Peru. Firstly, 70% of the Peruvian workforce is made up of informal workers who cannot afford to miss any daily earnings. High population density, especially in the poorer areas of the cities, has further contributed to the spread of the virus. On top of that, according to many Peruvian medical experts, the main reason for the country’s high death rate is the severely underfunded healthcare system.
Peruvian Doctors Protest
On Aug. 26 and 27, Peruvian doctors gathered outside the Ministry of Health in Lima, Peru’s capital, to protest the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, oxygen and ventilators. They also sought to call attention to the extraordinary risks they face while treating COVID-19 patients without proper protective equipment. At least 153 Peruvian doctors have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic so far.
These protests highlight issues that have plagued Peru’s healthcare system since long before the pandemic. In 2017, Peru spent only $680 per capita on healthcare compared to the average of $1,026 in Latin America. According to the World Bank, in 2014, Peru only had 1.6 hospital beds per 1000 people — a little more than half of the average worldwide.
The Peruvian government had previously promised to improve the acute lack of funding and the insufficient availability of medical care. Yet, these issues have persisted and have rendered Peru’s healthcare system incapable of dealing with the spread of COVID-19. Specifically, the country’s medical system has been unable to offer effective testing and contact tracing. On the whole, the system is overwhelmed and is insufficiently equipped to treat those suffering from COVID-19.
Peruvian officials are aware of the weaknesses of the country’s healthcare system. Consequently, they have made some progress to improve the situation. In the last decade, the country’s Ministry of Health has implemented measures to more equitably distribute healthcare access throughout Peru. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Peruvians living in rural areas of the country now have more access to healthcare thanks to the Ministry of Health’s efforts.
Still, the high death rate of COVID-19 illustrates that there is much that needs to be done. Perhaps in the aftermath of the pandemic, the government will take the opportunity to redouble their efforts and make the improvements that Peru’s healthcare system urgently needs. Peru’s high death-rate from COVID-19 despite the government’s early reaction to the disease proves that investing in healthcare is truly a matter of life and death.
– Dylan Weir