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Peru Grapples With The Pandemic Despite An Early And Tough Lockdown

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

When the pandemic began, Peru imposed one of the earliest and toughest lockdowns in Latin America. It's now registered more deaths per capita from COVID-19 than almost any other nation. NPR's Philip Reeves says Peruvians are demanding to know what went wrong and why.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Frontline doctors and nurses are on the streets in the middle of a pandemic. This demonstration is in Peru's capital, Lima, in front of the Ministry of Health. You're listening to a video sent to NPR by Dr. Godofredo Talavera, who spoke to us from the protest.

GODOFREDO TALAVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "The government's broken its promises," says Talavera, who heads the Peruvian Medical Federation. "It's failed to invest in Peru's health system."

TALAVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "We don't have oxygen and ventilators. We need more laboratories to process COVID tests," says Talavera. Peru reported its first coronavirus case on the 6 of March. Less than two weeks later, the government shut down the international airport and imposed a nationwide quarantine. Since then, more than 28,000 Peruvians have died.

JACQUELINE FOWKS: We have seen a collapse in the hospitals, and we have seen also the collapse of the economy.

REEVES: Jacqueline Fowks is a veteran Peruvian journalist who's based in Lima. She says that as Peruvians debate why this has happened, they're feeling...

FOWKS: Sad and angry, sad and angry.

REEVES: Fowks blames Peru's terrible coronavirus numbers on the failings of its health service. She also says much of the country's workforce just couldn't isolate.

FOWKS: They couldn't afford the lockdown.

REEVES: Seven out of 10 Peruvian workers are in the informal sector and live hand-to-mouth. The government's been making emergency support payments to the poor. Yet, there are undocumented workers who don't qualify. To see how people are now suffering, just take a walk around the poorer parts of town, says Fowks.

FOWKS: You will see a lot of people in the streets walking around asking for money, asking for food, asking for any kind of help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MARTIN VIZCARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Peru's president, Martin Vizcarra, made a fresh effort to counter surging COVID-19 cases. After easing off the lockdown, he reintroduced some restrictions, including an all-day Sunday quarantine. Eleven days later, Peruvians awoke to news of more tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAID AMBIENCE)

REEVES: Footage showing chaos and panic outside a Lima nightclub. Thirteen people died, reportedly in a stampede, after police raided an illegal all-night party there. Right now Peru's government is logging a daily average of 178 COVID-19 deaths. That's the official number. No one disputes the country's particularly hard-hit by the virus, yet Dr. Ruben Mayorga of the World Health Organization thinks Peru's numbers are inflated. He says the country's mostly been using rapid tests that measure antibodies. These only show if someone had the virus at some point.

RUBEN MAYORGA: You can have somebody who deceased (ph) from something else. But since you have a COVID-19 antibody test, you will be declared as having died of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

REEVES: Back at the protest outside the Health Ministry, Dr. Godofredo Talavera quotes another distressing number that no one seems to doubt; 153 medical professionals in Peru have so far been killed by COVID-19, he says.

TALAVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "There's really no one here who hasn't lost someone," he says.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRA STRELISKI'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.