LIMA, Peru (AP) – On the same day that the Peruvian government announced yet another stark increase in the number of coronavirus infections, thousands of people gathered in long lines outside shopping centers for hours to have a chance to buy a new sweater, sneakers or computer.
Peru – which reports the sixth highest number of cases in the world to a population of just 32 million – has decided to ignore the scientific warnings and opened many of the country’s largest shopping centers this week. The government followed international advice on combating COVID-19 – imposing a strict home order for three months – but the measures failed to prevent one of the worst outbreaks in the world, and the country is now facing one of the deepest recessions in the region on top rising mortality rates.
The official unemployment rate is at 13%, and a university study estimates that the country will lose 4.2 million jobs by the end of the year – figures that don’t even cover much of the informal economy.
Thousands of community-run soup kitchens have sprung up, offering cheap meals to neighbors who are pooling resources because they can no longer afford to feed themselves.
“It’s hard and sad when you have kids and there is no food,” said Yeni Anco, a 46-year-old mother of seven whose husband sells face masks on the streets of Lima. “A bigger child can handle it, but a little one can’t.”
So now Peru prioritizes trade over public health and hopes for the best. Shopping center reopening is the biggest step the government has taken so far, but by June 30, all antivirus measures will be removed.
With 402 stores, including H&M and Zara, the Lima MegaPlaza has a normal capacity of 30,000 people. Management limited shoppers to half that number this week, but the result was thousands of people in tightly packed rows outside.
More than 2,000 waited on Tuesday afternoon in rows strolling out of the main entrance to the mall. Almost all wore masks, but many respected the 3-foot (1-meter) distance prescribed by the Peruvian government – already less than the 6-foot recommended elsewhere. Street vendors, taxi drivers and beggars roamed the crowds.
Two police officers watched passively.
“With all these people together, I want to get out of here,” said Evelyn García, a 35-year-old beauty retailer who is waiting to buy a laptop waiting outside the mall. Despite her concerns, she said, she needed the computer to work from home.
“I’ve had an old computer for 100 days,” she said, rubbing disinfectant on her hands. “This is the only solution I have now. ″
Chilean company Parque Arauco, owner of MegaPlaza and 20 other Peruvian shopping centers, said it worked closely with local authorities to ensure that health rules outside its facilities were observed.
Before entering the mall, each customer’s temperatures were measured and hands and shoes were disinfected. Children are excluded from the shopping centers and playgrounds, food courts and other public areas are closed.
Still, epidemiologists said reopening malls in Peru as the country continues to report more than 4,000 new cases every day is almost guaranteed to accelerate the infection.
“Outside the shopping centers, there is no control and many people gathered, desperate to shop,” said epidemiologist Juan Astuvilca, dean of the Lima College of Medicine.
Peru was the first country in Latin America to impose widespread quarantine, which started on March 16. But with nearly half of the 16 million working population in casual jobs like construction or street sales that have no benefits or the ability to work from home, millions defied the order and worked to feed themselves and their families.
After decades of under-investment in public health, the spread of the epidemic quickly became overwhelming. On Tuesday, intensive care units in Peru were almost 88% occupied. In all, more than 8,400 people have died, according to a note from Johns Hopkins University that almost certainly underestimates the toll.
“Hospitals are about to collapse,” said epidemiologist Ciro Maguiña, a professor of medicine at Cayetano Heredia University.
However, the government says the number of new infections is decreasing, despite the fact that 3,363 more people tested positive on Tuesday.
So, faced with widespread discontent and an expected 12% fall in gross domestic product this year, President Martín Vizcarra began gradually easing quarantine and entertainment measures last month. Opening the shopping centers is the newest and biggest step. The shopping centers in Peru are largely owned by powerful regional conglomerates and employ approximately 180,000 people.
Vizcarra said the urgent need to restart the economy meant that every Peruvian would be responsible for helping to fight disease, rather than relying on government controls.
“Everyone has to make sure that everyone respects social distance,” Vizcarra said in a public appearance Monday. “We reopen, but trust the Peruvians’ sense of responsibility.”
But Maguiña, the epidemiologist, said it wouldn’t be enough: “If they don’t do better controls, we probably have more people infected and more deaths.”
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.
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