One of the most tragic consequences of the arrival of Covid-19 in Peru is the more than 90,000 children and adolescents who have been orphaned. The coronavirus left more than 200,000 dead in this country and highlighted the need to improve the Peruvian health system.
Reporter: Karla Velezmoro
Every time little Valeshka sees a girl holding her father’s hand, she wonders why her daddy is no longer with her.
-What do you want? Beer, pizza or chocolate? Her father would ask her on the phone before coming home from work. Valeshka’s answer was almost always pizza. So as soon as he heard his father arrive on his bicycle, he would run out to meet him, and with his help he would get on the bike and they would both get lost to enjoy their father-daughter moment.
«My little girl has been quite shocked (her father’s death). She misses him and cries, cries a lot,» says Cedonia Bendezu Maguiña, Valeshka’s mother and Elmer Lavado Rosales’ wife, one of the more than 200,000 victims left by the coronavirus in Peru. «My husband was 43 years old. He was loving with his children, especially with Valeska, who was the youngest. What has happened to us is very sad, everything we have had to live through, ”he adds as his voice breaks.
And now, who will take care of you?
Valeshka’s father, Elmer, was a hard-working man; he had managed to build a room made of fine materials and a tin roof on the heights of a hill, in the San Miguel de San Juan de Lurigancho human settlement, one of the most populous districts of Lime.
Cedonia supported him however she could, by cleaning houses, sewing for others. Elmer had a formal job as a construction helper so they both got ahead thinking about the future of their children. However, with the arrival of the coronavirus, he lost his job like many Peruvians, so he had to “chuck” as a bricklayer. He had to bring livelihood to his home.
In mid-February 2021, when the second wave of COVID-19 infections was going uphill, Elmer began to feel unwell, to have a fever. In just days his health broke down. He had been infected with the coronavirus. Cedonia, his wife, tried to admit him to a hospital, but couldn’t. They were packed with patients. They did not receive it. So, he opted for private care at a nearby medical center, but despite the treatment they gave him, he did not improve.
Elmer was finding it harder and harder to breathe. With a lot of effort, Cedonia and her relatives raised money to buy an oxygen ball. It cost them 2,500 soles, more than 650 dollars at the time. That same balloon, before the pandemic, cost 150 soles —40 dollars—, but given the high demand for medical oxygen, prices skyrocketed, and many made their business out of desperation.
Listen to the podcast about «El Ángel del Oxígeno», José Luis Bars allo, the man who maintained the fair trade of medical oxygen in Peru.
But an oxygen cylinder was not enough for Elmer; the oxygen ran out, and it was impossible to raise the money to buy another. The ball cost three times more than the minimum salary that was received at that time (930 soles, 250 dollars).
Elmer then got worse and his saturation began to drop. «I remember the last thing he told me, he was still conscious:» When you get infected, who will take care of you?
Faced with a lack of oxygen and advancing pneumonia, Elmer’s saturation reached 70. Cedonia decided to take her husband back to the hospital.
«They didn’t even open the door for me. Like me, there were a lot of people. Ambulances arrived, but they did not enter, ”he recalls without being able to hold back his tears.
Elmer died in the taxi, probably on the way from his home to the hospital. «Two hours later a doctor came out, saw him and told me there was nothing to do anymore. So I returned home with my husband.» I will continue.
Elmer passed away on February 26, 2021; he suffered from asthma, and perhaps this illness could have seriously complicated his health. «It reassures me to know that I accompanied him until the last moment and that he practically died in my arms in the taxi, that he did not die alone,» his wife narrates.
At just six years old, Valeshka watched her father’s life slowly fade away. He was in the house at all times. Cedonia also fell ill, and Valeska was invaded by the fear of losing her too, but fortunately she managed to overcome the disease. And he did it for his children, above all, for Valeshka, who is eight years old today and is the last of three siblings.
Cedonia and her daughters, looking at a photo of her father and husband. Photo: Courtesy of Cedonia.
The orphans of Covid-19
Peru is the country with the highest number of children orphaned by COVID-19 in the world. This was confirmed by the former Minister of Women of Peru, Anahí Durand, when she requested the expansion of orphan pension beneficiaries to the Congress of the Republic.
And it is that, according to the medical journal The Lancet, more than 98 thousand children and adolescents were orphaned in Peru due to COVID 19; one of them is Valeshka.
The State, through the National Comprehensive Program for Family Well-Being – INABIF of the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Populations, grants a pension of 400 soles (100 dollars) every two months to an orphaned child or adolescent living in poverty or extreme poverty.
Recipients of the orphan’s pension in Peru
The Director of INABIF, Hernán Yaipén Aréstegui, reported that about 17,000 minors are currently beneficiaries of this economic assistance due to Covid-19, but this benefit is expected to reach another 25,000 by the end of the year.
On this occasion, it is not being demanded that the cause of death be only due to Covid-19. Why? Because it seeks to include those children and adolescents whose families do not have an official document proving that their parents died from the coronavirus because many died at home, they can access this benefit.
Hernán Yaipén Aréstegui, Head of INABIF. Photo: Victor Mallqui.
Cedonia was precisely the beneficiary of this aid, granted due to the increase in orphans in Peru for a few months. This support lightened the economic burden of supporting her two daughters Valeshka, 8 years old, and Yashira, 17, since the eldest of her children currently lives in the interior of the country working on a farm, so her low income does not allow her to help her mother however she wanted.
But Cedonia was able to access a pension of 200 soles per month for the contributions that her husband made to the pension system; so she no longer receives the money for orphans that the state granted her, a situation that has put her in financial trouble.
Cedonia only has temporary jobs cleaning houses, as she says she can’t stay on her feet for a long time or exert a lot of strength because she gets tired. She believes it is a sequel to the coronavirus.
«My daughter Yashira (the eldest) wants to study at the university. I also want her to be professional. She wants to be an architect, but I think the career is a bit expensive, right?», says Cedonia, hoping to achieve a better future for her children as Elmer would have wanted too.
Children of heart after the increase in orphanhood in Peru
Esperanza is eight years old, very restless, and with lively eyes. Follow Gabriela everywhere. If you saw her, you would think that they were mother and daughter, but they are not.
«She’s very attached to me. The psychologist says that it is because she is afraid of losing me, she is afraid that I will leave, that I will leave her, «says Gabriela Zárate Mucha while looking for the photograph of her sister Katherine on her cell phone. «It seems that my sister had a presentiment of what was going to happen to her. One day he told me, ‘if something happens to me, take care of my children and I have done so,’ says Gabriela.
Gabriela with her children and nephews. Photo: Victor Mallqui.
Before the pandemic, Gabriela Zárate Mucha’s family was made up of her, her husband and their four children, today her four nephews and her baby who is not yet a year old have joined. «I treat them all equally, I do not make differences,» he says.
It was the end of June 2020 —in the middle of the first wave— and Katherine began to feel the symptoms of the coronavirus. Her family tried to admit her, but the hospitals could no longer cope with the large number of people who came seeking help.
Katherine faced the disease at home, lying on a mattress. It became increasingly difficult for him to breathe and the family did not have the money to buy an oxygen cylinder. On July 5, 2020, Katherine died.
Gabriela, then, fulfilled her sister’s wish and convinced her husband to take care of her nephews. «They have their dad, but it’s like they don’t have him. He has addiction problems,» he laments. «At the beginning I thought, and how are we going to feed everyone. But even the neighbors were supportive of us.»
Gabriela’s children are contemporary with her nephews, so they get along very well. In her humble house in Villa El Salvador, on the outskirts of Lima, Gabriela has managed to distribute the space in her house. Children, for example, sleep in bunk beds.
Gabriela receives financial assistance from Inabif. It is not enough, but it is a help.
«My husband goes to work at night with the mototaxi, before I also worked in the mototaxi, but since my baby gets sick a lot I can’t. So I’m at home watching the kids, letting them do their homework. Sometimes they are sad because they miss their mother and I prepare the food that she made for them,» she says.
Although Inabif gives them financial support, it also provides psychological guidance and supervises how the money is spent, as well as the attendance of the children at school.
When we meet again
Liliana Díaz Paredes is Colombian. He stayed in Peru for love. She met Robinson Galarza, a prominent broadcaster, in a radio booth and they both fell in love. Years later they married and had Luhana.
Unlike Cedonia and Gabriela, Liliana lives in a middle-class district in Lima, but just like them, Covid-19 took away a loved one.
«In 2020, my husband had decided to work independently because he always had contracts. But when the pandemic came and the restrictions began, the situation changed and he opted to teach at the university and he did it from March to June, but he did not continue from there. So, I was the only one who was working and he was under quite a lot of economic stress due to not having a job,”, says Liliana, evoking those days.
According to the Peruvian Institute of Economy, 1,100,000 jobs were lost in Lima, the capital of Peru, due to the pandemic.
Liliana, her daughter and husband celebrating the last Christmas they spent together. Photo: Courtesy of Liliana Díaz.
In October, when the contagion curve of the first wave was declining, Robinson was offered a job and he accepted, even though it was to carry out activities in hospitals. His need to have a job had him anguished.
Liliana believes that this condition of intense stress worked against her husband. “They hired him to be a master of ceremonies and he was at Covid hospitalization sites. I presume that perhaps he was infected there because he was the only one who left the house. ”Lilian deduces.
At the end of October, the symptoms of Covid reached the home of Los Galarza. When the discomfort worsened, the first to be hospitalized was Liliana on October 31, 2020, two days later Robinson does.
«He was in the adjoining pavilion. We talked to each other on WhatsApp. When they took me to the bathroom, they left me waiting in the wheelchair to return to the pavilion, and from there I would see him, I would send him kisses and hearts. They did not allow me to get close because it was not prudent for me or for him, “he recalls, and his voice breaks.
«He coughed a lot, he had a dry cough, he was choking,» she continues, «I remember he wrote to me because they were going to take him to a place where he would be better monitored, from there I didn’t know anything else… until a neighbor called me to tell me that he had found out that Robinson had died and I told him that this was not true. I called my husband’s brother and he said he didn’t know anything. So, I saw the psychologist and the doctor approach my bed to talk to me; that’s when I realized…”, Liliana says through tears. When Robinson was about to be intubated, his heart gave out and he died on November 8, 2020.
Liliana was hospitalized until November 23, and all that time she was planning how she would tell her daughter, then nine years old, that her father had died. For this, he prepared himself, spoke with a priest, with a psychologist.
“She is a very mature girl. They recommended that I have a pet and we adopted a dog. Luhana misses her dad, but she is a very strong girl,» says Liliana.
Liliana is the one who takes her home forward and raises her only daughter alone. «When you always speak to her truthfully, even for financial issues, and you raise her without conceit, there is no problem,» she says. Not being part of the population living in poverty and extreme poverty, Liliana does not receive economic assistance due to her daughter’s orphanage.
Luhana, Liliana’s daughter with Luly, the pet they adopted as part of their therapy. Photo: Courtesy of Liliana Díaz.
Liliana and her daughter have taken refuge in their faith to face their duel. Luhana prays to her dad every night and she does it with great care.
«The afternoon of the day that Robin died, I heard for the first time on the cell phone ‘When we meet again’ by Carlos Vives and Marc Anthony, and I sent the link to Robin on WhatsApp telling him that I dedicated it to him. I feel that that letter is what he would have wanted to say to me. It was a farewell without knowing it,» he tells me in a broken voice.
Liliana, Robin, and their daughter in 2018, when Liliana became a Peruvian citizen. Photo: Courtesy of Liliana.
Reform in the health system
The number of deaths from Covid-19 in Peru had a peak of 1,100 daily deaths during the first wave, and in the second, the deaths of between 300 and 400 people were recorded daily. 200,000 people out of the more than 33 million inhabitants of this country have died from the coronavirus.
The pandemic made visible a series of problems that Peru has been dragging for many years, including that of the Peruvian health sector. For this reason, the recommendations of experts such as those of the World Bank point to the urgent need to reform the health system, which is currently fragmented and presents management problems.
Despite the fact that in 2021 the Congress of the Republic of Peru approved Law No. 31125, which declared the national health system in emergency and regulates its reform process, for the Ombudsman’s Office, no progress has been made in this process that seeks to Peruvians have a solid and quality health system.
And it is that when attention is resumed in person at medical posts and hospitals, the lack of human resources, equipment and infrastructure is once again noticed. «51% of hospitals in the health sector have an infrastructure gap that does not allow the provision of health services to be carried out in optimal conditions,» says the Ombudsman.
Temporary Hospital of Hu aura, January 20, 2021. Photo: Ministry of Health of Peru.
Corruption is another of the problems that arose, in addition to the rise in orphan rates in Peru. During the health crisis and the despair that invaded the population to save the lives of their relatives, there were complaints of charges to COVID patients of up to 82 thousand soles, about 22 thousand dollars at the current exchange rate, for each ICU bed at the Guillermo Hospital. Beacon, one of the most important in the Peruvian capital.
Today, Peru is preparing for a fifth wave, with 85% of its population vaccinated and with the use of masks only in closed places. For some their lives are returning to normal; for others nothing will ever be the same.
For Cedonia and her daughters, Father’s Day and Christmas are difficult dates to face. «At Christmas and on Father’s Day, my daughter Valeshka cried a lot. My little girl was very shocked that her father was not there; he was conceited… I trust that God will help us get ahead ». And although it is more difficult for them to recover, Cedonia is clear that her daughters must study, but their economic situation can frustrate those dreams.
Liliana’s daughter, for her part, has faced these dates, Christmas, and Father’s Day, with great integrity. Although there are still steps that he has not taken. «I visit the Presbítero Maestro Cemetery where my husband’s ashes are deposited, but Luhana does not enter. She prefers to stay with her uncle.» And Liliana respects his decision.
Gabriela, from home, tries to support her nephews and they are happy to be with her. They see in her a little bit of her mother, who left. «In October I always remember my sister because we are both from the same month, we have birthdays. Those days I always remember her. I start to think: ‘sister why did you leave’”, she tells me with a broken voice and pauses. Little Esperanza, her niece, watches her from the doorway. Attentive. Gabriela, then, holds back her tears to show strength. Esperanza seems to notice. He runs to her and reaches for her arms to help her sit next to him.