It’s a confronting sight. A person lies draped in a blanket with a mask covering their face, prone in the dirt lying between identical green bottles.
The canisters are empty bottles of concentred oxygen.
Sleeping or too weak to get up, it doesn’t matter. They are desperate to get their hands on the next batch of full bottles, either for their family or to gulp themselves.
As Australians fret about when exactly they might get a vaccine in their arms, many Peruvians have more basic COVID concerns — whether or not they will be able to get their hands on oxygen so their loved ones struck down by the virus will be able to breathe.
Pictures from Villa El Salvador, a southern suburb of Peru’s capital Lima, shows the scale of the COVID-19 nightmare in the Latin American country, which is seeing a coronavirus resurgence fuelled by new variants of the virus.
Last week was Peru’s deadliest yet during the pandemic.
As nations round the world are looking forward to when the virus threat might fade, Peru’s 33 million inhabitants are wondering how worse it might still get.
The country’s infection rate of 5000 people out of every 100,000 is not remarkable by global standards. It’s above Australia’s 116 per 100,000 rate but below much of Europe which has seen multiple debilitating waves.
In terms of deaths, however, Peru’s record is far worse.
The country has seen almost 55,000 fatalities from COVID-19. That’s 169 per 100,000 people, which is just a touch below the UK, US, Italy and Belgium — some of the most COVID-afflicted nations.
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Choice between voting and breathing
In the midst of this surge in infections and deaths, Peru has held a general election.
Polling queues vied with lines of people seeking oxygen supplies for infected loved ones, reported news agency AFP.
Some had to choose which was more important: casting a vote or buying oxygen.
“It is unfair, because instead of being there in the voting queue, we had to get up at daybreak to fetch oxygen,” Micaela Lizama told AFP in Lima.
The fine for not voting is 88 Peruvian sols, about A$32.
Mario Tinoco said he was willing to risk the fine for not voting because, “I have to get oxygen that is the main thing for me“.
The lack of bottled oxygen in Peru has been a feature of the pandemics for months.
In February, Reuters reported that many hospitals were short of concentrated oxygen, vital for patients with damaged lungs. At the same time, the price of bottles has tripled in Lima.
Price gougers were squeezing the desperate, particularly in hard scrabble neighbourhoods like Villa El Salvador.
COVID has plunged Peru into a political crisis. There have been allegations that high ranking government officials had jumped the line to receive the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine months before it was widely available.
But the main issue is a health system that was already shaky.
“It was a predictable problem: Most hospitals in Peru, unlike in other countries, do not have their own oxygen generators and instead have to source it from outside,” Foreign Policy magazine reported in October.
“This affects public hospitals, which depend on the government, and the problem is even more noticeable in rural areas, where most oxygen generators, already short in number, are out of operation due to a lack of repair services.”
The pandemic has shown that Peru’s headline economic growth and declining poverty counted for little in the face of a deadly, marauding virus.
“We are told that Peru is advancing, and that we have had years of stability, but the pandemic has come and has exposed, quickly and abruptly, how precarious and vulnerable and how weak the social fabric of the country is, including the health sector,” Jaime Miranda, a director at the Centre of Excellence in Chronic Diseases at Lima’s Cayetano Heredia University, told Foreign Policy.
Election held at pandemic peak
Saturday’s election came the day after 11,200 new cases were reported and 384 people passed away from COVID-19, the highest daily death toll yet.
Six of Peru’s 18 presidential candidates have contracted the virus.
An early exit poll showed far-left labour unionist Pedro Castillo in the lead with 16.1 per cent of the vote, far short of the 51 per cent required.
The same inconclusive result had economist Hernando de Soto and corruption-accused populist and former First Lady Keiko Fujimori sharing the second place with 11.9 per cent each.
Other candidates include former soccer goalkeeper George Forsyth – one of those infected – and ultraconservative celibate Catholic Rafael Lopez Aliaga.
COVID-19 has become one of the key campaign issues of Peru’s election.
Apart from the lack of oxygen, there is also a lack of vaccines. Chile, which borders Peru to the south, has administered at least one dose to almost 40 per cent of the population putting it below only the UK and Israel in the global jab league.
Peru has vaccinated barely 2 per cent of its population.
The protracted election process and lacklustre response to the pandemic means come June 6, when the presidential run off happens, Peruvians may again have to choose between lining up to vote or lining up for oxygen.
More people could end up lying on the road, wondering where their next oxygen bottle will come from.
– with AFP.