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Lima, Peru—In Peru’s capital city, an exodus is underway. Outside bus terminals and in makeshift encampments on the sides of roads, thousands of people are struggling to get out. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing shutdown of the country’s economy is bringing about a radical reversal of long-standing migration patterns, and revealing the flaws in the government’s response to the crisis.
Lima is a city of migrants: The country’s largest city has for decades lured migrants from Peru’s peripheries, people looking to earn a living they couldn’t obtain in their home region. From a little over 1,000,000 residents in the 1950s, the city has rapidly expanded to more than 10 million today. Many of the new arrivals live in crowded, improvised housing, and earn their money day-to-day. When the pandemic made it impossible to continue working, many people couldn’t afford to remain in the city even if they wanted to. So they are taking to the roads.
“We’re more afraid of hunger than the virus,” Wilson Granda told me, as he was waiting with 10 of his relatives for a bus to Ayabaca in the north of Peru, more than 30 hours away. Regional governments are working to provide transportation for those who want to return to their hometowns, but the scale of the reverse migration is daunting: More than 170,000 people have registered with the government for bus transportation home, and that’s only those who have registered. That has left people like Granda to wait, sometimes days at a time, before their spot on a bus opens up.
Before the pandemic hit Peru, I had been working with native communities in the Amazon for some years, and the last trip I was able to make, in February, before the internal borders were closed was to work in the highlands jungle on a project about the threats facing Ashaninka communities in one of the country’s coca-producing regions. Drug trafficking, depopulation, and illegal logging had plagued these communities for years, doing their own part to spur migration to the cities. Now, many who left are returning.
When Peru went under lockdown, many native communities closed their borders too, but that didn’t stop the virus from making its way into some communities in the Amazon and the Andes. Among the people I spoke with on the streets of Lima, many are from the Amazon regions of Loreto and Piura, on the northern coast of Peru. The situation is changing quickly, but these remote communities are on high alert, many of them days away from a hospital. Many of the people now leaving Lima are on their way to these communities, and the risk now is that they may carry the virus with them.
Something that I heard a few times was, “At least there we have a farm, in Lima you can’t plant,” and perhaps this will be one lasting change from this crisis, a revaluing of jobs that are really fundamental for our existence. But first, these people have to get home.
“We’ve been waiting for more than 15 days and we need to go back,” Richard Pangoa told me, as he and his wife and three little girls were walking in the direction of Pucallpa in the north jungle of Peru, more than 400 miles away. “We can’t keep sleeping in the streets. We’ll just walk.”