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What It’s Like for Canadians to Be in Lockdown in Peru

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The Miraflores district of Lima features immaculate public spaces along the Pacific coast. The Peru capital is coping with a nationwide lockdown issued on Sunday night. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Vacay.ca occasionally features content from outside of Canada. Our Managing Editor, Adrian Brijbassi, is residing in Peru as it endures a national lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is his report.

It started at 8 a.m. on Monday. Peru, where I have lived for all of three weeks, became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to order a lockdown of its nation — banning all passenger flights, whether domestic or international, shuddering restaurants and cafes, closing playgrounds and beaches, and halting all non-essential pedestrian traffic. The police and military are ensuring compliance as the country desperately tries to avoid the fate suffered by so many other nations crippled by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Police board public buses intent on making sure social distancing is obeyed. Military officers stop vehicles to ensure their drivers have a valid reason — such as going to work — to be on the streets. Many offices remain open, but employees are encouraged to report from home if they can.

The restrictions will be in place for 15 days. If the measures are successful in containing the spread of COVID-19, then some of the extreme measures will be lifted. Peru had 71 confirmed cases when it announced the state of emergency on Sunday night and 117 as of Tuesday morning. At first glance, Peru may not be “flattening the curve” — an early contender for phrase of the year among wordsmiths who track that sort of thing — but the country has also increased its testing. The 117 confirmed cases is out of 3,117 tests, with more than half of those being conducted since Friday. The increased testing has lowered the confirmed rate of infection from 4.2 per cent for every million people to 3.75 per cent. That figure is comparable to Taiwan, one of the nations that has been credited for its competency in battling COVID-19.

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The Canadian Embassy in Peru, located in Lima, was closed on Monday after a state of emergency was declared in the South American country. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

On Tuesday, Peru’s president, Martin Vizcarra, reiterated that his government installed the national lockdown in an attempt to stay ahead of the coronavirus’s rapid spread and expressed confidence his strategy will work.

“We believe that there will be no extension of the state of emergency to the extent that we comply with the state of emergency. If we do, 15 days will be enough, according to experts,” Vizcarra told reporters (text translated from Spanish language newspaper Diario AS). “If we seriously carry out the quarantine in these 15 days, it will be enough.”

If he’s right, Vizcarra may very well be hailed as a brilliant leader whose aggressive action is in contrast to so many of his peers who moved slowly, debilitating their health-care systems and increasing the death rate in their nations. That includes Canada, which has an infection rate of 12.3 per million residents.

Read More: Why Canada Must Ban U.S. Travel

Thus far, the lockdown, from my perspective, has worked. If you want to go out for groceries or need to make a purchase at a pharmacy, you can without interference. If you need to walk your dog, or take a bike ride, or even go for a jog, you can — at least in the Miraflores district of Lima, where I reside in an apartment overlooking the cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean. It is 28 Celsius degrees (82 Fahrenheit) every day, with a cooling breeze coming in from the ocean in the evening and sunshine tingling your skin, calming your bones in the day.

The large grocery stores are out of some items — including toilet paper — but the small convenience stores and pharmacies remain well stocked. Vizcarra admits there is a backlog in transportation of supplies and produce from agricultural regions but promises a swift resolution for the capital city, home to approximately one-third of Peru’s 32.5 million residents. There is at least one major grocery chain that offers home delivery, reducing the risk of in-store anxiety.

Doctors are performing house calls to limit the number of visitors to clinics and medical offices. A pediatrician visited my home on Monday to check on my 2-year-old son, Gabriel, who had a mild but persistent cough. The doctor, who spoke flawless English, evaluated Gabriel and put my mind at ease when he declared he had no chance of being a coronavirus carrier and was simply suffering from a minor cold that toddlers typically pick up. With that medical declaration, there is virtually no chance our family could contract the virus during the lockdown.

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Toddler Gabriel Brijbassi is checked by a pediatrician in Lima, who confirms he is in fine health. In the Peru capital, doctors are making house calls to help patients maintain social-distancing protocols. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

We have been safe and in good health in Peru, and possibly have a better chance of remaining so here than in Canada, where the crisis has not yet peaked. Vizcarra’s clearheaded decisions have been well communicated. Still, like many Canadians in Peru, I am contemplating cutting short my stay and returning home much earlier than intended, when the opportunity to do so arrives. Even though Canada may be in a more dire state than Peru in terms of the pandemic’s health impact, the uncertainty of what might transpire in a smaller, less wealthy country is reason to seek a more stable and familiar place to exist through this crisis.

A “Canadians Stranded in Peru” Facebook group has emerged and many of its nearly 200 members have been urging Ottawa to send a flight to Peru to extract those who want to return home. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told media there are no plans for “repatriation” flights but the government is going to look into what opportunities exist to get Canadians back who want to come back.

“There are three million Canadians at any given moment around the world, living and working, and I think it is just realistic to know that there are some of them who will not be coming home in the coming weeks,” Trudeau told reporters while in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for coronavirus last week, according to CBC News. “We’re working with airlines to try and make sure that as many Canadians as possible, as many Canadians as want to, can come home.”

Canadians in Peru remain hopeful, particularly because Israel has responded to requests from its citizens for repatriation flights. El Al, Israel’s national airline, is scheduled to begin sending planes on Wednesday “to return young post-army Israelis who are stranded” in Peru, the Jerusalem Post reports. The newspaper says there are about 1,000 Israelis in Peru.

Canadians in other places facing border closings have a chance to return this month. Sunwing Airlines said in a statement on Monday it will have flights from Honduras, Aruba, Panama, and St. Maarten, bringing more than 500 Canadians home. Air Canada is the only Canadian airline that operates flights to Peru. I have tried through my network to reach their communications department to see if a flight to bring Canadians back home may be in the works.

On Monday, the Canadian Embassy in Peru issued a statement that it would be closed following the Vizcarra government’s state-of-emergency declaration. Canadians in Peru were told to communicate with the Emergency Watch and Response Centre of Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa. Calgary Member of Parliament Tom Kmiec has told members of the Facebook group he is working with Global Affairs to provide assistance in getting home. Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne also launched a “special financial assistance program” for Canadians abroad, including a $5,000 loan program to help pay for flights or medical care to “temporarily cover life-sustaining needs while they work toward their return.”

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Paddington Bear, whose statue adorns Lima’s Larcomar shopping plaza, said adios to “Darkest Peru” and became a stowaway in the children’s book. Canadians living through Peru’s coronavirus emergency are eager to depart, though by safe and legitimate means. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The efforts haven’t assured the Canadians here who are anxious to get home. Some have inquired about private charter flights — an impossibility without coordination between Canada and Peru, including health officials from both countries. Others who are outside of Lima, in places like Cusco and Machu Picchu, have sought ways to reach the capital, knowing that when foreign flights do restart they will likely depart only from Jorge Chavez International Airport. But the military and police are reportedly turning drivers back if they are not authorized to be on the road.

On Saturday, Trudeau and other leaders asked Canadians to come home. Now, those stranded in Peru who could not get out by Monday report that Global Affairs has advised them to “stay put” in South America until further notice. In a world in calamity, Peru, because of its proactive response to the pandemic, is hopeful it may be one of the few places you want to be — at least for the next week or two.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.