Thoughts on the progress and difficulties faced by the Peruvian government in times of COVID-19 and the community's response

Posted by Mariano Flores on July 7, 2020

In recent weeks, cases of new infections in the Peruvian Amazon and in certain Andean regions have increased considerably, and the number of deaths is also higher than what was initially officially recorded, as is the case in Loreto. This ends up showing something that the population itself suspected from the beginning: that the health infrastructure in Peru has difficulties when facing a pandemic, as is the case with COVID-19. In regions with an underdeveloped infrastructure, the discontent of the local population and mistrust of a service that seemed to be guaranteed by the State continues to grow. Thus, several stories arise that question the availability of hospitals, due to their excessive demand. There is also a great bureaucratic obstacle that hinders an effective state reaction in these regions, and which is explained by Luisa Elvira Belaunde as follows: The Vice-Ministry of Interculturality positions itself as the owner of all that it has to do with Interculturality, so that any proposal from the Ministry of Health or other entities had to be reevaluated and adapted interculturally by the Ministry of Culture, thus slowing down decision-making. Furthermore, specialists were hired to produce a health plan for the indigenous peoples which had been developed in mid-April, however, it was finally published a month later. This type of state action has been questioned by organizations such as AIDESEP. As formulated in a letter to the Government: beyond translating messages, what is being done to reach indigenous communities?

This series of difficulties leads to the question, what measures are being developed by the population itself to try to compensate for the absence of the state?

These are two points on which I would like to highlight in this text. The first strategy that I would like to focus on is that applied by the "rondas campesinas". This is a communal organization that arose in rural communities, with the purpose of combating cattle ranching, and which subsequently functioned as a measure of self-defense against terrorism, whose role contributed significantly to its weakening.  In the last decades, these organizations were strengthened and have been legally recognized by the Peruvian government, even compensating for the absence of police in the most remote areas of the country. It should be noted that their degree of organization varies regionally, with the areas that were affected by terrorism having the greatest participation of the population. Returning to the main issue, what responsibility do the "ronderos" have in preventing the spread or containment of COVID-19? As current figures show, Cajamarca (department of Peru) is one of the regions with the lowest prevalence rate in the northern part of the country. It was also the "rondas campesinas" that identified the illegal movement of strangers during the national quarantine period.

Raomis Carolina Mahua
Photo: Gabriela Delgado - Alianza Arkana

The second community strategy being implemented at national level appears mainly as a response to the mistrust and difficulty of access to medical treatment in clinics and hospitals. In the indigenous communities of the Amazon, different medicinal plants are used mainly to treat the symptoms related to this virus. Among these are mucura or anamu and eucalyptus, plants that are especially used to treat respiratory diseases, and also serve as analgesics and anti-inflammatory medicines. Cat's claw and coca are also used to strengthen the immune system and relieve various pains that can be caused by the spread of COVID-19. 

One of the many initiatives developed in the region of Ucayali is the treatment based on matico, a medicinal plant that can help fight the symptoms produced by this virus. Thus, a group of young Shipibo volunteers organized themselves and began to collect and send this plant to where it was needed. What began as an initiative, was then consolidated as a project known under the name of "Comando Matico". As COVID-19 spread, the need for communities to act on their own (taking into account the absence of the state) increased. This is why, in addition, the Comando Matico started a treatment based on medicinal plants, and this knowledge was divulged through video tutorials. Currently, they are operating in Yarinacocha and have a space conditioned to treat patients with COVID, granted by the parish priest of the church "Nuestra Señora de Lourdes". It is also for this reason that these initiatives require more equipment to provide them with hygienic protection when treating infected patients, especially because of the high demand they have.

But, what is the main problem faced by this type of treatment? Since it is an unknown type of virus, the time needed to analyze the types of care outside of hospital institutions has not been invested. Therefore, there is no consensus on optimal treatment, which is becoming increasingly necessary in regions with a shortage of medical personnel and hospital infrastructure. It should be mentioned that no attempt is being made to invalidate or exclude any of the methods presented; on the contrary, the treatments presented should be seen as complementary, whose effectiveness should be analysed in more detail. Therefore, these regions require rapid molecular tests to map infections and the degree of serological immunity. 

Comando Matico and the matico
Foto taken by Gabriela Delgado Maldonado


These two initiatives are just a glimpse of the measures that have been taken by rural populations, who are expressing their enormous concern about the pandemic and their efforts to prevent its spread. These are initiatives that should be highlighted, considering that there is an immense social and infrastructure gap that the State is not yet managing to fill. Hence, it is the communities themselves who decide to act. Given this situation, the doubts regarding the responsibilities and guarantees that the State power can provide in the current situation remain in force.


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