There is light at the end of the tunnel… but Peru must change the tunnel it is currently on

Paula Arrus is a second year IR student from Peru with a strong interest in Latin American politics and economics. She enjoys writing thought-provoking pieces about current affairs and the future of our world. She is extremely passionate about football too and supports ‘the greatest club in England: Manchester City’.

Mandatory national quarantine in Peru began in mid-March, and with it came incredibly positive press and approval for President Martin Vizcarra. I celebrated his quick reaction to the pandemic even though we had less than 100 active COVID-19 patients at the time. In the first few weeks, the President unified the country: he presented national remote education programs such as “Aprendo en Casa” and promised to give Peruvian families financial aid to survive the crisis. I naively bought into every public policy the government came up with, thinking this would be the time to rebuild the country and foster development. To my disappointment, once again, actions spoke louder than words.

More than 100 days of quarantine later, complaints are piling up regarding the “Aprendo en Casa” program. The government took two months to choose the model of the tablets they were going to buy. Many of these tablets still have not reached the children in need of them to study remotely. Moreover, two million families have not obtained financial aid, as promised by the government. Not to mention, banks became hotbeds to spread the virus as people had to wait for hours in line, given that around 60% of Peruvians do not have a bank account or credit cards (much of the economy still works with cash only). The Ministry of Health’s efforts to build more ICU beds or hospitals in places where they had none has not been enough to accommodate the ill: this should have been their priority from the start. This year, Peru’s economy will contract by 12% (if not more) as the government closed the economy entirely instead of allowing export industries to function, just like Argentina and Chile did (their economies will contract significantly less).

In addition, the government’s communication has been weak. Since the start of the pandemic, Peruvians did not receive trustworthy information about the transmission and health consequences of the virus, thereby fostering carelessness and costly ignorance. Moreover, the Ministerial Cabinet has no coherence in its messages whatsoever. Ministers go on the radio and spread confusing information daily: some speak on Mondays to say that we need labour and transport passes to move around cities, while others come on Thursdays to say that these are not valid. On top of this, instead of airing information about the virus or education programs, the government allows TV reality shows back on the air. I did not know that we needed trash TV programs to fight a pandemic. 

Some would say, ‘keep in mind that Vizcarra’s government cannot improve in 100 days what has not been done in 100 years’. Yet, have you seen the necessary willingness from the government to do things efficiently or even implement logical and useful public policies during the pandemic? 

During the period of mandatory quarantine, especially in rural areas, the government could have implemented reconstruction programs to improve schools’ and hospitals’ infrastructure. How does the government expect students to return to school if they do not have water to wash their hands? The government could have used this time to build or buy new ICU beds. At the moment, it seems that we have not even reached 1,500 for a population of 32 million. If the government’s stimulus package accounted for 15% of our GDP, surely there was money to buy more ventilators and beds? Yet, Peru’s endemic mismanagement of resources struck again. While families are going hungry, local governments have been caught repeatedly stealing food supplies that should have been directed at the poor. It has been embarrassing the number of corruption scandals during the pandemic as officials keep stealing even in times of crisis. 

Regarding transportation: more than 100 days have passed, and the government was not able to formalize or even organise informal transport routes and vehicles. Now these ‘combis’ and informal ‘colectivos’ have become massive hotspots for virus transmission in Peru’s largest cities. On the other hand, local government never negotiated with Gamarra’s merchants, Lima’s largest garment district. There was no initiative to formalize their businesses or organize a way for them to make deliveries online in bulk. Again, the government waited until the last minute to witness how they swarmed the streets. What did they think was going to happen?

For the time being, Vizcarra’s government continues to blame the private sector as if it were the source of Peru’s miseries. Peruvians are starting to notice his strategy to shift the responsibility from the government to others, as shown by an 11 point reduction in President Vizcarra’s popular approval during the last week of June. Even though many hoped the pandemic would unite the country and encourage solid development policies, it has merely continued to uncover the government’s inability to manage resources, track its budget and implement logical and simple public policies. Peru is not a poor country per se, but years of resource mismanagement has led us to where we are now. If a state of emergency has not improved the government’s capacities, a complete overhaul of every official there will do so. 

I am not applauding the actions of the private industry either (neither of companies nor the private clinics). Undoubtedly, during this time, they should have participated more in the social and economic reconstruction of Peru. Private clinics have charged astronomical figures for uninsured COVID-19 patients, and the largest private companies fired their employees without much financial compensation. This paved the way for populist and resentful sentiments within Vizcarra’s government and many Peruvians too. 

However, I cannot deny that the role of the state remains crucial not only to safeguard the population’s wellbeing but also to forge alliances with the private industry who have much better management of resources and are able to promote socioeconomic development. A partnership between the government and private enterprise is needed for this country to develop, and this is what I hope will happen in the future. Adopting a developmental state approach will be ideal, but it will require a complete overhaul of the government and for a new generation of young politicians and economists to step up. 

I have written several articles anticipating glows of hope for Peru, but time always turns them off completely. We need people to stop lingering on hope and become determined to fix what is broken in this country, which seems to be right about everything. I am certain there is a better future for us, and there will be light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, it will entail a complete redesign of how Peru is run and completely change the tunnel we are currently in.

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