‘It was pure terror’: How a mountain town in Peru was overwhelmed by Covid refugees

·2-min read
A Covid patient at the Alberto Sabogal Sologuren Hospital in Lima. Peru was hit hard by the pandemic (AFP via Getty Images)
A Covid patient at the Alberto Sabogal Sologuren Hospital in Lima. Peru was hit hard by the pandemic (AFP via Getty Images)

The mayor of a remote mountain town in Peru has described how refugees fleeing Covid overwhelmed his community.

Marlon Brito Camacho, the mayor of San José de Lourdes, a town of 20,000 near the Ecuadorian border, says that despite the comparatively low mortality rate – just 12 deaths – the town was still hit hard by the virus.

Other small towns did not fare so well. An aid worker for the charity Practical Action told The Independent that in San Pedro de Casta, a town 3,000 metres above sea level in the Andes, every single family lost someone to the virus.

Peru’s health system before the pandemic was underfunded, understaffed and highly fragmented. It largely collapsed as the virus tore through its densely populated cities.

Peru has the highest Covid death rate per head of population worldwide. It has had 3.6 million cases and more than 213,000 deaths among a population of just 33 million.

Marlon Brito Camacho, the mayor of San José de Lourdes (Practical Action)
Marlon Brito Camacho, the mayor of San José de Lourdes (Practical Action)

It is also estimated to have one of the world’s worst rates of children being orphaned or losing their caregivers to the virus.

Mayor Camacho said the early days of the pandemic were chaotic.

“There was a lot of ignorance. People went for traditional plant remedies and had only basic information from the health ministry,” he said.

“At first it was all about watching: watching the news, watching what was happening in the world and watching what was happening in Lima.”

The town’s coffee industry was hit hard by the pandemic (Practical Action)
The town’s coffee industry was hit hard by the pandemic (Practical Action)

He added: “People living in cities wanted to come back to family here because they suddenly had no work.

“We had nearly 2,000 people coming to this town during the biggest crisis in a generation, a huge influx for a town of 20,000.

“People living here didn’t want them to come back, so there was social unrest and heavy costs for the municipality. It was chaos to manage; people were coming in by the truckload.

“Not even health professionals knew what was happening. It was pure terror. There were confrontations at checkpoints.

“The refugees had no money at all. They were a burden to their families here.

“The most uncontrollable were the youth. They largely disobeyed the instructions. They were playing sport and having parties.

“The police and army were not enough. It was like too many fires and not enough water.”

However, the mayor also saw solidarity among residents, with people bringing fruit and vegetables for the refugees.

He added: “We’re confident that everything can go back to normal after the vaccination programme.

“The advantage here is that it is not densely populated and the low mortality is linked to that.”

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