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Mission co-workers emerge from quarantine in Lima, Peru

Three-year-old son able to go outside for the first time in 3½ months

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The lockdown has significantly reduced air contamination in Lima. Before COVID-19 Jed and Jenny Koball felt fortunate if they could see the first ridge of the Andean foothills. Now they can see three or four from their 16th-floor apartment window. (Photo by Jed Koball)

LOUISVILLE — After 15 weeks in total lockdown in their apartment in Lima, Peru, mission co-workers Jed and Jenny Koball and their now 3-year-old son Thiago are finally able to go outside again.

To date 282,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Peru — about 156,000 of them in the capital city. Sadly, 9,504 Peruvians have died.

Peru’s President, Martín Vizcarra, followed the best medical advice available when the coronavirus arrived in Peru. On March 15, he ordered one of the first and strictest lockdowns in all of Latin America. The government quickly rolling out economic aid packages so people could stay home. Vizcarra increased available testing and was transparent with public health data. The approval ratings from the people of Peru were over 80 percent.

But like almost everywhere else in the world, wealth disparities created a disparity of care available to the population.

While the economy of Peru has been one of the fastest growing in the region over the past 20 years, it also has among the smallest percentages of its GDP invested in health and education, leaving most people without access to traditional jobs and adequate health care. As the virus began to spread among Lima’s 10.7 million residents, thousands of unemployed families living in poverty began migrating to rural areas, returning to family farms and in search of food security. In the movement, they carried the virus with them, bringing it to far more vulnerable areas of the country with less government presence and resources.

State hospitals quickly filled. Health workers lacked personal protective equipment, became sick and in some cases stopped tending to patients. Long neglected maintenance on oxygen production factories left the country in short supply; families are paying upwards of $1,500 for a canister of oxygen that may last a matter of hours. Those who could afford private ICU facilities were required to make a down payment of about $30,000 (U.S. dollars) before they could be admitted.

In Lima the mortality rate from COVID-19 is under 2%. Outside the capital, the mortality rate is as high as 12%. The highly under-resourced health systems have become starkly apparent, said Jed Koball.

“Indigenous populations have been among the most gravely impacted,” he said. “Not only are they far removed from health care systems, information about the coronavirus has not been disseminated in native languages, leaving many not knowing how to properly protect themselves. Also, they have been vulnerable to unscrupulous persons experimenting on them with unproven medications to combat COVID-19. Further complicating matters, many indigenous populations live in lands exploited by oil and mining operations that have continued to operate without the presence of State environmental enforcement agencies during the lockdown. Over 400 oil pipeline leaks have been reported in the Amazon during the time of the lockdown, further risking the health of the people.”

Koball continues to walk alongside PC(USA)’s global partner Joining Hands, an organization that has long fought for integrated environmental and human health. “Decades of walking alongside peoples most vulnerable to the inequities of the modern world have afforded them a trust to be able to share information and speak in unison,” he said. “Soon, mining operations in Peru will crank up again at full capacity.”

Now that plastic face shields and medical masks are more available, the people of Peru have been able to take off their homemade masks and upgrade. Jed Koball is the designated family member to get groceries for his family. To do that he puts on both a mask and face shield.

Here’s how Jed Koball dresses for an outing to the grocery store. (Photo by Jenny Koball)

“Three months ago, I might have laughed at others going to such extremes (apart from the fact that the hospitals needed the equipment), but today this is how I suit up to go to the grocery store. God bless medical workers who wear this all day every day,” he said. “As for the price gouging, President Vizcarra announced he is giving the clinics 48 hours to significantly drop their prices, or the state will expropriate the clinics.”

The Platform for Environmental and Human Health – Junín Region (organized and presided over by the PC(USA)’s Joining Hands partners), made up of social organizations and people emerged from poorly recognized and often invisible families, declared this:

“We are in need of moving from strict confinement to focused confinement; for which, it is critical to improve the testing capacity, contact tracing, and response capacity of the health system. These are, after universal confinement, the most urgent challenges for our Junín region.

“We encourage the population to adopt and maintain new ways of life, including physical distancing to protect the health and safety of families; the promotion of hygiene and sanitation habits according to the instructions of the health authorities, and dialogue between family members (fathers, mothers, children, young and old) to clarify and seek consensual family and community solutions.

“Given the weak State intervention with fragmented and partial responses on the health issues of these populations, it is necessary that the sub-national and national authorities make the best political and economic decisions to implement the National and Regional Program for Integrated Health, which focuses on promotion and prevention, and which places environmental and human health as a priority.”

Latin America has recorded more than 1.5 million cases of the virus. Places including Brazil remain among the world’s epicenters. With winter arriving in the southern part of the region and hurricane season in the northern part, the World Health Organization warns this week that these adverse weather conditions could lead to a new spike in infections.

Thiago in his mask. Children age 2 and up are required to use masks even while outside. (Photo by Jed Koball)

During the lockdown, invitations from U.S. partner churches have increased. The Koball family has prepared videos, prayers, and preaching for streaming worship services. They made a video for Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania for the church’s Maundy Thursday services, calling the five-minute video “Love and Fellowship in a Time of Quarantine.”

The Koball family is grateful to have survived 3.5 months of quarantine with a three-year-old. All three feel blessed.

“I am amazed that after all this time, ‘T’ (Thiago) still has that smile on his face and energy abounding. Jenny, too, for that matter. For so many reasons I love her — not the least of which is her resilience in the face of crisis and change,” Jed Koball said. “The two of them together sustain me and remind me how loved I am.”

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