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Peru holds election during deadly COVID surge and oxygen shortage

Globally, many can see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, but a single image has summed up the terrible choice citizens of some countries are having to make.

It’s a confronting sight. A person lies draped in a blanket with a mask covering their face, prone in the dirt lying between identical green bottles.

The canisters are empty bottles of concentred oxygen.

Sleeping or too weak to get up, it doesn’t matter. They are desperate to get their hands on the next batch of full bottles, either for their family or to gulp themselves.

As Australians fret about when they might get a vaccine in their arms, many Peruvians have more basic COVID concerns. Whether or not they will be able to get their hands on oxygen, so their loved ones struck down by the virus will be able to breathe. Pictures from Villa El Salvador, a southern suburb of Peru’s capital Lima, show the scale of the COVID-19 nightmare in the Latin American country, which is seeing a coronavirus resurgence fuelled by new variants of the virus.

Last week was Peru’s deadliest yet during the pandemic.

As nations worldwide are looking forward to when the virus threat might fade, Peru’s 33 million inhabitants are wondering how worse it might still get.

The country’s infection rate of 5000 people out of every 100,000 is not remarkable by global standards. It’s above Australia’s 116 per 100,000 rates but below much of Europe, which has seen multiple debilitating waves.

In terms of deaths, however, Peru’s record is far worse.

The country has seen almost 55,000 fatalities from COVID-19. That’s 169 per 100,000 people, which is just a touch below the UK, US, Italy, and Belgium — some of the most COVID-afflicted nations.

The choice between voting and breathing

Amid this surge in infections and deaths, Peru has held a general election. Polling queues vied with lines of people seeking oxygen supplies for infected loved ones, reported news agency AFP. Some had to choose which was more critical: casting a vote or buying oxygen. “It is unfair because instead of being there in the voting queue, we had to get up at daybreak to fetch oxygen,” Micaela Lizama told AFP in Lima. The fine for not voting is 88 Peruvian sols, about A$32.

Mario Tinoco said he was willing to risk the fine for not voting because “I have to get the oxygen that is the main thing for me“. The lack of bottled oxygen in Peru has been a feature of the pandemics for months.

Reuters reported that many hospitals were short of concentrated oxygen, vital for patients with damaged lungs, in February. At the same time, the price of bottles has tripled in Lima.

Price gougers were squeezing the desperate, particularly in hardscrabble neighborhoods like Villa El Salvador.

COVID has plunged Peru into a political crisis. There have been allegations that high-ranking government officials had jumped the line to receive the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine months before it was widely available.

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