'We Are Living In Fear': COVID-19 Further Isolates Peru's Andean Women

“How will I get to a hospital if I am sick and cannot walk,” asked one woman, “and with what money will I pay for it?”
August 6, 2020, 7:07pm
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Photo by Allegra Zagami.

In late May, the World Health Organization named Latin America the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases quickly surpassed those in the United States and European Union. With more than four million confirmed cases, the virus continues to spread across the region. In a virtual briefing, the Pan American Health Organization warned that the virus shows no signs of slowing down.

Peru implemented one of the first lockdown measures in Latin America, and one of the longest in the world. With nearly 450,000 infected, the country is one of the worst hit in the region. After four months of lockdown, Peru struggles to flatten the curve. Last week, Peru recorded its highest daily increase in cases since the lockdown lifted in June.

While Peru’s failed recovery exposes the fragility of its economy, healthcare system, and social programs, the pandemic has also highlighted existing social and economic inequalities for its indigenous communities, particularly women, a group that has been historically marginalized and long overlooked.

“When we’re talking about inequalities for indigenous women, they’ve always existed. The pandemic has just made them more visible, and they’re only going to get worse,” warned Melania Canales Poma, president of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Women of Peru (ONAMIAP).

“Women’s rights have a cost," Poma said, "and [the cost] is even worse for indigenous women. They can’t afford to pay for fundamental rights. These are not real rights, they are a business.”

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Kelcanca. Photo by Allegra Zagami.

High in Peru’s Andes Mountains lies the village of Kelkanca, six hours from Cusco and four hours from Ollantaytambo, the nearest transit hub. After leaving Ollantaytambo, a narrow gravel road winds through the snow-capped mountain range to reach the indigenous Quechua village.

“We feel forgotten. We are living sad and frightened,” said Eustaquia Zuniga, a mother of six.

The entrance to Kelkanca is barricaded by stones and barbed wire, intended to protect the community from the rapidly spreading virus. Many in the community are living in fear. “I am afraid if [the virus] comes here. I don't want to die, I am afraid,” said artisan Agripina Mamani.

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Agripina Mamani. Photo by Allegra Zagami.

Initially, the remote nature of Peru’s indigenous communities provided them with a brief sense of security, momentarily protecting them from contracting COVID-19. However, as the virus has spread, living in isolation has become one of their biggest threats. My community is the furthest away from Ollantaytambo compared to other communities. There isn't always vehicle transportation to come down into town. It is very isolated and we don't have many business opportunities. I feel sad because of this,” said artisan weaver Cipriana Medina.

Without internet access or television, the community relies on the radio to receive information in their native Quechua language. Medina first learned about the virus in early March. “I was filled with fear," she said "They told us it would affect us all and that we must get together with our family, even if they were living far.”

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Cipriana Medina. Photo by Allegra Zagami.

Feelings of isolation are heightened in this remote Andean community. Without any way to communicate with her family living in a distant village, Medina walked alone, for six hours through the night, to the nearest town with taxi service, desperate to reach her youngest son and ensure he was safe. Her journey was exhausting, but she was relieved to find her son healthy.

Reflecting on the difficulty of her voyage, she lamented, “How will I get to a hospital if I am sick and cannot walk, and with what money will I pay for it?” Kelkanca does not have a doctor or basic healthcare services. The community is six hours by car from Cusco, the nearest hospital that treats COVID patients.

In many indigenous communities, multigenerational families traditionally live in close quarters, often without running water, soap, hand sanitizer, or cleaning supplies, thus making it even more difficult for these groups to protect themselves.

Tourism is the main economic driver for the region of Cusco, where Kelkanca lies, with Machu Picchu drawing travelers from all over the world. Peru’s strict lockdown measures left both Medina and her husband jobless as tourism disappeared overnight; “My husband earned his income from [Machu Picchu’s] Inca Trail and I would get mine from artisanal production, but now we don't have any income. If we get sick, with what money are we going to use to pay for our care?” Without tourism for the foreseeable future, many families are left without income or savings and struggling to make ends meet.

While the Peruvian government has been praised for having one of the most robust stimulus packages in Latin America, Medina and Mamani, like many across Peru, have yet to receive any economic aid, furthering their financial exclusion.

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Residents of Kelcanca. Photo by Allegra Zagami.

However, local nonprofit organizations have begun to fill this void with immediate relief measures. “Many of our artisan partners don’t have bank accounts or a way to file for benefits online. They had no other options for aid. We didn’t have a choice, we had to step up,” said Kennedy Leavens, executive director of local nonprofit Awamaki. The nonprofit works to empower artisans like Medina and Mamani across the Sacred Valley through education and providing market access for their goods.

Without income to purchase food, the organization realized a different kind of help was needed. “As part of our mission, we strive to give a hand up rather than a handout. But we recognize that sometimes, material support is what's most needed. Now is one of those times,” said Leavens. Since the beginning of lockdown, the organization has carried out weekly relief missions to deliver essential food and nonperishable goods to remote artisans.

The organization has watched COVID-19 shutter opportunities for these women. Without tourism, and with fewer economic opportunities, Leavens believes, indigenous women “are going to bear the brunt of the economic fallout in rural Peru,” which could have a profound impact on the preservation of their culture. Tourism allows the women to remain in their village for work, safeguarding their customs, language, and traditions. “It was one of the few economic opportunities in the village and the families had made amazing strides towards creating prosperity, while also retaining their heritage,” said Leavens.

Awamaki connects with their artisans on a personal level during their relief trips, providing educational resources for virus prevention and facilitating group discussions for women to voice their concerns and challenges.

At one of these, many women expressed worry about the future of their children’s education; with schools closed, lessons are delivered via radio. Agripina Quispe Mamani said, “We can’t teach our children because we don't know how to read and we don’t understand what’s played on the radio.” The other women nodded in agreement, understanding the value of education as a catalyst for a better life for their children.

Looking down, Medina reflected. “I don't know what is going to happen," she said. "I don't have hope for the future. I don't know how this will pass.”