LIMA – Black-and-white pictures of dozens of men and women, some in their 30s and others much older, line the perimeter of a bright yellow building overlooking the Pacific, a two-story-tall black ribbon covering part of the facade and a Peruvian flag at a half-staff near the door.
The makeshift memorial is for fallen “pandemic soldiers” — doctors who have died since the coronavirus struck this South American nation last year and unraveled the public health care system.
“Our country, like the other countries in the world, is not prepared for this pandemic. Even more so, the most affected are developing countries like ours,” said Dr. Gerardo Campos, a spokesman for the Medical College of Peru.
The college represents physicians and its headquarters is the site of the memorial, where a cleaning worker wearing a face mask recently dusted off each photo and placed flowers in front of them.
“Peru has been deeply affected, and within population groups, those on the front line are the doctors — the first-line soldiers who have battled COVID," Campos added. "We have had great losses. ... The Medical College has been seen affected in its entirety.”
More than 260 doctors have died from the virus in Peru. Their colleagues blame the deaths on a lack of proper personal protective equipment and what they say is the government's abandonment of the health care system. In January alone, the virus has killed at least 10 doctors, five of whom worked in the capital of Lima.
The Andean country was one of the worst-hit in the region by the pandemic during 2020 and is now experiencing a resurgence in cases. The country of 32.5 million people has recorded more than 1.1 million coronavirus cases and over 40,100 deaths related to COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
A revolving door of patients, long work shifts, shortage of medical supplies, including oxygen, and lack of protective equipment at hospitals across the country has affected the mental health of doctors. Doctors now warn that Peru could face a crisis of physicians if the government does not take the appropriate steps.
“A healthy doctor will cure practically the majority of our population,” Campos said. “I would ask the government to reconcile, to consider, to work together. I believe that we have valuable people — experts, epidemiologists, specialists in infections, specialists in intensive care, specialists in emergency medicine — who with adequate health policies can work together for the well-being of our general population.”
Health care professionals have been mounting an open-ended national protest for weeks to press their complaints about inadequate salaries, poor benefits and other working conditions. On a recent afternoon, wearing scrubs, gowns, face masks and face shields, they marched in Lima surrounded by police in riot gear. They held signs asking for pay raises and expressed their demands through a megaphone.
“Second wave of COVID and there is no increase in the 2021 budget,” read one sign that included a photo of a hospital hallway packed with patients.
More than a million health care workers have contracted COVID-19 across Latin America, according to the Pan American Health Organization. At least 4,000, most of them women, have died.
“They’ve worked harder – under more grueling circumstances – than ever before," Carissa Etienne, the organization’s director, said Wednesday during a virtual news conference. "Many have risked their own lives and those of their families to care for those who are sick, and their heroic efforts have saved many COVID patients.”
In an attempt to increase the pressure on the Peruvian government, at least four doctors began a hunger strike earlier this month outside the Ministry of Health. They are staying in tents on the sidewalk, and at least one of them has been hooked up to an IV with fluids.
“Doctors die every day. Dentists die every day. Nurses die every day. It is something that outrages us because we are really on the front line of this pandemic,” said Dr. Teodoro Quiñones, who is among those on the hunger strike and is secretary general of the union that represents doctors who work in Peru’s public hospitals. “We are really concerned about how the pandemic is being managed.”
Lying on a mattress in a tent, Quiñones said doctors do not believe Peru can carry out a successful vaccination campaign when considering that officials have not been able to solve oxygen supply woes at hospitals for the past 10 months.
More than 120 nurses have died as a result of the pandemic in Peru, according to the union that represents them. It's unclear how many dentists and other health workers have died because of the public health emergency.
Experts say Peru’s second wave of coronavirus cases was driven by the large protests in November that generated political chaos in Peru — and led to 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 Sunday.
Dr. Yesenia Ramos works at a hospital in a remote region in Peru’s jungle that is accessible only by airplane. She said her hospital treats COVID-19 and non-COVID patients and has lost 23 doctors, most of them specialists.
“It’s not fair,” Ramos said. “We have the right to life, and we have the right to take good care of our insured patients as it should be.”
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City and Muñoz reported from Lima. Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon contributed to this report from Miami.