November 27. People in Iquitos, Peru, refer to their city as “una isla,” an island, even though it’s not an island. Iquitos is a port city of roughly 400,000 people on the Amazon River in northeastern Peru. Residents proudly note that it’s the largest city in the world that’s unreachable by road. You can only get there by boat or by plane.
In the early days of the COVID pandemic being isolated seemed like an advantage. It might delay the arrival of the virus. It might make it easier to contain. But that didn’t turn out to be the case for Iquitos.
The first COVID cases appeared in Iquitos in March of 2020 at a time when cases were starting to pop up in many parts of the world.
The disaster unfolding in Iquitos would quickly play out across the South American nation. Peru’s per capita death rate from COVID is now the worst in the world, far higher than any of its neighbors and twice the rate of the United States. In Peru COVID officially caused nearly 6,000 deaths for every 1 million Peruvians.
Mariana Leguia, an infectious disease expert in Lima, says a combination of factors made COVID so deadly in Peru. “It was sort of a perfect storm,” says Leguia, who directs the genomics laboratory at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.
Every country in the world was scrambling to buy up masks, protective gear, ventilators. Peru was not only competing against neighboring South American nations for pandemic supplies but against wealthy nations like Germany, the United States, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Peru didn’t have the cash or the clout to compete in that frantic market.
Other factors in Peru’s COVID storm were an underfunded public health-care system, overcrowded living conditions and a huge informal economy. An estimated 70% of Peruvians survive off informal jobs, making it nearly impossible for them to adhere to the nationwide lockdown. Nearly a quarter of Peru’s 33 million citizens live below the poverty line.
The coup de grâce for Peru was a lack of oxygen. Peru not only didn’t have sufficient supplies of medical oxygen to treat patients, it had restrictive, cumbersome regulations on bottling oxygen that had limited the market to just a few local companies.