LIMA, Peru – Black and white images of dozens of men and women, some in their thirties and others much older, line the perimeter of a bright yellow building overlooking the Pacific, a two-story black band that covers part of the facade and a Peruvian flag on a half pole near the door.
The makeshift memorial is for fallen “pandemic soldiers” – doctors who have died since the coronavirus hit this South American nation last year and unraveled the public health system.
“Like the rest of the world, our country is not prepared for this pandemic. Developing countries like ours are hardest hit, ”said Dr. Gerardo Campos, a spokesman for the Medical College of Peru.
The college represents doctors and at its headquarters is the memorial where a cleaner who recently wore a face mask dusted each photo and placed flowers in front of them.
“Peru is deeply affected and the front lines within the population are the doctors – the frontline soldiers who fought COVID,” added Campos. “We had great losses. … The Medical College as a whole was viewed as affected. “
More than 260 doctors have died from the virus in Peru. Her colleagues blame death for the lack of adequate personal protective equipment, and they say the government has abandoned the health system. In January alone, the virus killed at least 10 doctors, five of whom worked in the capital, Lima.
The Andean country was one of the worst hit countries in the region by the 2020 pandemic and is now experiencing a resurgence in some cases. The country of 32.5 million people has seen more than 1.1 million coronavirus cases and over 40,100 deaths related to COVID-19 in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
A revolving door of patients, long work shifts, a lack of medical supplies, including oxygen, and a lack of protective equipment in hospitals across the country have adversely affected the mental health of doctors. Doctors are now warning that if the government does not take the appropriate steps, Peru could get into a doctor crisis.
“A healthy doctor will practically cure the majority of our population,” said Campos. “I would ask the government to reconcile, to consider, to work together. I believe we have valuable people – experts, epidemiologists, infection specialists, intensive care specialists, emergency medicine specialists – who can work with appropriate health policies to advance the well-being of our people. “
Healthcare professionals have been holding an open-ended national protest for weeks to express their complaints about insufficient salaries, poor performance and other working conditions. On one final afternoon, they marched in peelings, clothes, face masks and face shields in Lima, surrounded by policemen in protective clothing. They held signs asking for a raise and expressed their demands over a megaphone.
“Second wave of COVID and there is no budget increase in 2021,” read a sign with a photo of a hospital corridor full of patients.
More than one million healthcare workers have received COVID-19 across Latin America, according to the Pan American Health Organization. At least 4,000, most of them women, have died.
“You have worked harder – under tougher circumstances – than ever before,” said Carissa Etienne, the organization’s director, on Wednesday during a virtual press conference. “Many have risked their own lives and that of their families to care for the sick, and their valiant efforts have saved many COVID patients.”
To increase pressure on the Peruvian government, at least four doctors went on hunger strike in front of the Ministry of Health earlier this month. They live in tents on the sidewalk and at least one of them has been connected to a liquid infusion.
“Doctors die every day. Dentists die every day. Nurses die every day. It is something that we are outraged about because we are really on the front lines of this pandemic, ”said Dr. Teodoro Quiñones, who is on hunger strike and general secretary of the union that represents doctors working in Peru’s public hospitals. “We’re really concerned about how the pandemic is being treated.”
Lying on a mattress in a tent, Quiñones said doctors don’t believe Peru can run a successful vaccination campaign considering officials have been unable to resolve oxygen issues in hospitals for the past 10 months.
According to the union she represents, more than 120 nurses have died as a result of the pandemic in Peru. It is unclear how many dentists and other health workers died as a result of the public health emergency.
Experts say Peru’s second wave of coronavirus cases can be traced back to the major protests in November that caused political chaos in Peru – and resulted in the naming of three presidents in a week – as well as holiday gatherings. The surge prompted officials to issue new lockdown measures that will go into effect on Sunday.
Dr. Yesenia Ramos works in a hospital in a remote region in the Peruvian jungle that is only accessible by plane. She said her hospital treated COVID-19 and non-COVID patients and lost 23 doctors, most of them specialists.
“It’s not fair,” said Ramos. “We have the right to life and we have the right to care for our insured patients the way it should be.”