LIMA – Six months after becoming the first Latin America country to impose lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, Peru is fifth in the world in the number of cases and seventh in deaths, yet the struggle against the pandemic finds itself competing for attention with a push to impeach President Martin Vizcarra.
More than six million people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, while the cost of fortifying the health care system to cope with the crisis and maintaining some semblance of a safety net is expected to equal 12 percent of gross domestic product.
But despite those sacrifices, it was only last month that the curve of infections, hospitalizations and deaths began to flatten.
Peru has 733,860 cases and the virus has claimed nearly 31,000 lives in the Andean nation, the health ministry said on Tuesday, noting that the number of new infections declined by 29 percent in the last week.
Though seven countries have experienced more fatalities from coronavirus, Peru has the highest COVID-19 mortality rate, with 94 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants.
The 102 deaths over the past 24 hours was the lowest total in four months, the health ministry said.
The daily death tolls plunged roughly 61 percent between Aug. 10 and Sept. 12, according to statistician Farid Matuk, who was part of a team of experts advising the government on dealing with the pandemic.
Across Peru, around 10,000 hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, compared with more than 14,000 last month.
On Tuesday, Vizcarra visited Lima’s Villa Maria del Triunfo neighborhood to take part in a campaign providing rapid COVID-19 tests and health checks for elderly and low-income people.
“In these recent days, we see a light at the end of tunnel, because the indicators of infections and people who die have been diminishing gradually, but we can’t be overconfident,” the president said.
“COVID is not going to surrender, we have to defeat it,” he said during the event, seen as part of Vizcarra’s attempt to get the public to focus on his government’s efforts against coronavirus rather than the political crisis.
Vizcarra became president in March 2018 when incumbent Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stepped down to avoid being impeached on suspicion he received some of the $30 million in bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to obtain lucrative public works contracts.
But the scandal that now threatens Vizcarra’s presidency involves a much more modest sum.
A television news program reported in June that Richard Cisneros, a flamboyant musical artist and would-be celebrity better known as Richard Swing, received up to $50,000 from the Culture Ministry for speeches on topics such as “Transformative Knowledge Leadership.”
The revelations led to the resignation of the-then culture minister and, later, to the departure of Vizcarra’s long-time private secretary, Karen Roca, while the president insisted that he had no involvement in the contracts awarded to Swing.
“We are all involved in this investigation and the strategy is for all of us to come out of it together,” Vizcarra tells advisers in one of the audio clips released last week by a member of Congress.
When the scandal broke, Vizcarra said that he first met Swing in 2016 when the singer performed at campaign rallies for Kuczynski and his running mate.
Vizcarra also said that while Swing made two visits to the presidential palace after he succeeded Kuczynski, he was received by an assistant and a secretary on both occasions.
On the recordings, however, Vizcarra and his aides mention up to six visits to the palace by Swing.
Another clip is of a conversation where Roca – since revealed as the person who made the recordings – blasts the president for making her the scapegoat for the scandal and forcing her to step down.
None of the nine parties with seats in the Peruvian Congress support Vizcarra and the Swing affair represents a chance to get rid of him.
But the president turned the tables on lawmakers when he revealed that the speaker of Congress, Manuel Merino, approached the military brass before the release of the Roca tapes to secure their support for a move against Vizcarra.
The minister of Energy and Mines, Miguel Inchaustegui, said that members of Merino’s party made a similar approach to him.
News of Merino’s maneuvers prompted several other parties in Congress to withdraw their support for impeachment, and a poll released on Tuesday by Ipsos shows 79 percent of Peruvians oppose the removal of Vizcarra.
At the same time, 41 percent expressed disapproval of his conduct in the Swing case.