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The On-Going Tragedy of Covid-19 in the Peruvian Amazon

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

13 August 2020: Coronavirus continues to rip through Peru (population ~33 million), one of the most affected countries in Latin America along with Brazil (>212 million) and Mexico (~129 million), and it was just reported that cases among children have jumped 75%. Peru is essentially tied in official cases with Mexico, despite having about 1/4 the population of Mexico. Official data obtained from 12 August 2020 indicate a count of >499K cases, and 21,713 deaths to date; a lethality rate of 4.35%. In the Amazonian state of Loreto, where we operate, the official numbers are 12,694 cases and 622 deaths; a lethality rate of 4.90%. It sounds bad, but it's actually far worse, and the numbers might as well be considered fictional, or for a more realistic picture, multiply by a factor of 10 or 20. Numbers are only as good as their sources and assumptions, and there are numerous problems with pandemic numbers in areas where resources are scarce and the health system completely overwhelmed.

On 21 July, Agencia EFE (Spanish International News Agency) reported that based on testing results, 25.3% of the population of Lima and Callao (the capitol metropolitan area) had been infected with Covid-19. With a population of some 10.78 million people. that would mean that over 2.7 million people had been exposed to coronavirus. About the same time, the results of 715 rapid tests in Iquitos, capitol of Loreto, returned a staggering positive rate of 93%. Extrapolated to a population of 1.04 million in Loreto (Iquitos with at least 464K of that total), that would mean 0.97 million infected persons in Loreto. Now there are obvious problems with that kind of extrapolation, but the very high rate coincides with other testing and anecdotal data. Way back in March, 99% of vendors in Iquitos' famous Belen Market tested positive for Covid-19. During the strict lockdown that started on 16 March, the city razed the sprawling informal market with it's 1000's of small stalls (as well as ambulatory vendors) selling everything from underwear and mothballs, beauty supplies, bootleg DVDs, raw fish and poultry, smoked monkey meat, turtle eggs and traditional medicines. Tens of thousands of people shopped at the seven-day-a-week market, and each vendor would have had daily contact with hundreds if not thousands of people. The market was a textbook super-spreader location with no masks and no possibility of social distancing. More recently, we've heard numerous reports from contacts, friends and our own employees about how every single person in their household had symptoms of Covid-19. Not just in Iquitos, but in more remote rural areas as well. Very few - if any - of those people have been actually tested.

The Belen Market - a chaotic, crowded, dirty and fascinating place. Photo by Bernie Wallerich.

Hospitalization rates and new infections plateaued in Iquitos in June. By late July and early August, the pressure was off in the hospitals, and daily deaths were decreasing rapidly, restrictions on movement were largely lifted, and domestic flights to other parts of the country resumed. Even though Iquitos may have reached a so-called herd immunity level, coronavirus was still spreading rapidly through other parts of Peru that had been spared the first wave of cases - places like Cusco, Puno and Arequipa in the Andes Mountains, and localized quarantines were extended from 30 July to 31 August. Currently, the medical establishment in Iquitos is calling for the airport to be closed again, as hospitals are filling up again with imported cases from Lima and other parts of Peru.


A pandemic starts in Peru (coming soon)

Covid-19: An existential threat for indigenous peoples of the Amazon (blog by past Project Amazonas volunteer Theodor Borrmann)


In addition to the direct death toll, the situation in Peru is a grave warning to the rest of the world not to take the pandemic lightly. Peru took immediate and very tough measures to try and keep the virus under control, but wasn't able to do so (see "A pandemic starts in Peru"). The economic and health costs are going to be staggering. Already there are reports of surging crime levels in the larger cities where tens of thousands of people without work are trying to make ends meet. Illegal logging, hunting, gold-mining and coca production are taking over from legitimate economic activities. Tourism, a former mainstay of Peru's economy, is another of the pandemics fatalities. Many people are reporting persistent serious health issues months after their initial infection, and medical staff and supplies are exhausted. This is especially true in rural areas, where the most basic of medications - fever reducers, for instance - are now often not available. Many who didn't die of Covid-19 will die of other treatable medical conditions as a result.

Along with various partners, we are doing what we can to meet some of the critical medical needs in rural areas. You can help us deliver essential medical supplies to the communities that we serve through your donation. Stay safe, stay healthy, and please take Covid-19 very seriously.

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