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Colonial Wound, (Re)Infected: Pandemic in the Andes

Peru’s first case of coronavirus was imported via Spain, where an obliviously infected young man had picked it up on his Euro-travels and smuggled the virus through Lima’s Jorge Chavez International airport, hidden deep within his respiratory system. Yet, this may be a novel virus for the world, but the imposition of epidemic and ruin from a Spanish culprit in Peru, is not; it is reminiscent of an historical trauma that lingers still in the Andean nation. Coronavirus may arguably trigger a painful collective memory, poking at a gingerly-concealed colonial wound that influences the national reaction to crises and may subsequently affect the country for a time to come post-COVID-19.  

This article seeks to reflect upon favourable reactions to military intervention against the virus, and collective national traumas, as well as raise issues for potential future areas of focus in a pro-militarised, post-pandemic Peru.  

The governmental reaction to the arrival of coronavirus on Peruvian shores was objectively swift: martial law, enforceable by armed soldiers who patrol the streets in de-individuating face masks. Peru saw immediate border closures and an initial imposition of a two-week quarantine for all citizens (now extended until May 10), at a time when cases were still minimal. With April came strict curfews, and Peru joined Panama as one of only two nations in the world to impose gender-segregated quarantine, with men and women assigned different week-days on which they are permitted to leave the house for essentials-shopping only. This scheme soon failed, upon the perhaps unsurprising realisation that it was women who mostly left the house for grocery shopping and errands, resulting in over-crowding on ‘women’s days’.  

Yet despite the potential for concern, especially given Peru’s recent social and political issues with gendered inequality and high rates of feminicide and domestic violence, such strict moves were applauded as ‘necessary’. More interesting still is the public support for the military control of the streets and disciplining of quarantine rules.  

Observing various memes circulating on social media, one sees camouflaged soldiers juxtaposed alongside health workers as essential in the coronavirus fight (Figure 1; Figure 2).  

Figure 1: “Peruvians. COVID-19”. Military and medical personnel, with president Vizcarra in centre. Facebook, artist unknown.

Figure 2: Medical staff member and soldier, with Peruvian flag in the middle. Facebook, artist unknown.

Whilst this has become normalised in Peru, this is a highly incongruous state of affairs from a UK perspective, where police officers have had to publicly apologise for excess of force and we the public have seen zero visibilisation of the role of the military. Even during my fieldwork in Peru, I have never witnessed military in the streets, unless for a parade or appropriate national event. On this, a colleague at the Pontifica Universidad Catolica in Lima suggested that, “the people see the military as more authoritative than the police, and that is why the president deployed them in the street to maintain the quarantine”, with another friend in Lima conferring that “people are more afraid of the military and so more likely to obey”. These statements are undoubtedly true, but they do not speak to the widespread support for the deployment of military forces by President Martin Vizcarra, and during peacetime, no less.  

Of course, it is important to underscore that not everyone displays fear of military as paramount – fear of the virus may now surpass this for some. The Miguel Castro prison riot on April 28 attests to this very fact. Nine inmates were shot dead during the protest within the Lima penitentiary, when rioting prisoners attempted to scale the walls and throw objects at the approaching State authorities in a desperate attempt to flee their cells…and mass contagion. The mindset behind this frantic effort to avoid almost-certain infection was exemplified by a homemade banner pleading: ‘Queremos las pruebas de covid-19, Tenemos derecho a la vida’ (‘we want COVID-19 tests, we have the right to live’). Whilst these individuals, marginalised and forgotten within an overcrowded prison, may not have expressed great support for military intervention, there nevertheless remains considerable support among the lay public.  

Yet the answer does not necessarily lie squarely within contemporary events. For this, we must instead look to Peruvian history and the discourses surrounding military interventions, particularly in regard to domestic national emergencies.  

The defining national emergencies of last century both came in the early 1990s, with Shining Path terrorism and the cholera epidemic. As Cueto (2003) suggested, both became conflated as deadly epidemics that the state needed to fight against (Figure 3), and it did so with military power.

Figure 3: Magazine Oiga, 18 February 1991. “With a license to kill”; left to right, “I am Abimael”, “and…I am cholera”. From Cueto (2003: 271)

Of course, the use of the military to tackle the Shining Path was not everywhere seen as a positive intervention. For example, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission attributed almost half of civilian deaths to the military, who were further accused of horrendous massacres and rapes during the internal conflict. In my doctoral field site of Vilcashuaman, Ayacucho- a rural, Quechua indigenous province that housed a key Shining Path ‘training camp’ and became a military red zone during the conflict, the military are still despised for their actions. As a friend once confided: “the military were worse. The [Shining Path] terrorists would kill you, but the military would torture you first”. Yet, the powerful, coastal seats of government lauded these strong-arm interventions as the solution to removing Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman and return the country to peace. The terrorists and cholera both wanted to ‘kill you’; the state used its muscle to deal with this. Interesting, then, that coronavirus has welcomed the public return of Guzman as an example of ‘viruses’ to be dealt with (Figure 4).  

Figure 4: “Viruses that kill Peruvians”. Left: Abimael Guzman, Right: Coronavirus. Facebook, artist unknown.

If the Shining Path ‘virus’ was conquered with the military, so too can this new virus be vanquished by the same.  

But who is the military really going to discipline? Recall the Quechua in Ayacucho, who still hate soldiers (with good reason) for unduly causing suffering in the past. They were (and are) in positions of vulnerability and the military exploited this. Then, as now, military power will not be evenly distributed.  

Andrea, a psychologist from Ica, argued to me that, “this quarantine is fine for us in the middle classes, but for those people who live day-to-day, they are the ones who will face problems with the soldiers when they need to keep going out to buy food”. It is a widely acknowledged, global truth that pre-pandemic privilege has carried over into quarantine, as privilege in the past spared certain groups of Peruvians from military interventions during the civil war. However, all this does not account for the national support of the military’s sudden visibilisation and prominence in daily, peace-time life.  

It could be that the people simply congratulate authoritarianism – indeed, Martin Vizcarra, although never formally elected, holds a high presidential-approval rating. In the past, President Alberto Fujimori, the leader during the cholera epidemic who was credited with the capture of Abimael Guzman, also used military power and governed with ‘populist authoritarianism’, and once enjoyed widespread popularity too before he entered into scandal and disrepute.

It may also be true that Peru’s health system would be unable to handle the inevitable strain of an explosion of COVID-19 cases, necessitating a firm and early hand in avoiding what would certainly lead to a national-health service catastrophe. However, these reasonings, though potentially valid, fail to address an important specificity of the Peruvian experience. There may also be another, hitherto overlooked factor worthy of our reflection.  

This viral importation from Europe (and specifically, Spain) that threatens to decimate the population if not immediately dealt with arguably speaks to the wider collective trauma in the national imagination, and one that is actively discussed and promoted not only through Peru’s vastly Inca-centric tourism industry but also through national narratives of past-empire nostalgia. The coronavirus pandemic prods at a colonial wound, threatening to re-infect the tender sore left behind when the Spanish Conquistadores overthrew the Inca and, like so many other colonial efforts throughout history, succeeded in doing so with the help of smallpox and measles epidemics that attacked, weakened, and wiped out indigenous populations in an early form of biowarfare that gave the Spanish an invisible but deadly hand in their campaigns. The Incan military was unprepared and unable to stop this spread; the military of the contemporary nation state can.  

Here it is important to underscore the prominence of the colonial narrative in Peru’s contemporary-collective identity, and the significance that the Conquest holds as a defining moment in national history for Quechua school children and adults of European-descent alike. Alberto Galindo (1986) calls this the Andean Utopia; a myth of pre-conquest equilibrium and Incaic superiority that permeates generations and infuses the national character with a yearning for a perceived idyllic Inca past that never actually existed. This imagined past, and the notion that returning to it would rid the country of contemporary inequalities, has influenced social movements and revolutions throughout the colonial and republican periods, argues Galindo. Importantly, this mythical utopia is popularly thought to have been dismembered with the introduction of the Spanish epidemics – biological viruses themselves, but also the brute violence and Catholicism that accompanied the Conquest. Does the coronavirus pandemic, snuck into Peru via Spain, trigger collective historical fears and scratch at colonial lesions?  

It is important to remember that whilst Peru has been an independent republic for nearly two hundred years, there are those who argue that colonialism was not actually expulsed from the country along with the Spanish crown, but continues still today through pervasive, institutionalised power structures. Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano suggests that through a ‘coloniality of power’, those who govern the nation continue to do so using colonial logics that perpetuate inequality (2000) (including through gender-policing) (Lugones, 2013). Of course, current pandemic-policy may be viewed as a necessary precaution, but if we think to the gender-segregated streets of citizens surrendered to weapon-toting militia at the behest of a centralised-state that has historically, and contemporarily, privileged certain strata along racial and class lines, then we might take a different view.  

Policies of segregation and military power are not working for COVID-19 the way they might have worked for past ‘viruses’ of Shining Path & cholera; Peru currently has the second highest count of COVID-19 related-deaths in South America, behind Brazil. However, what is important to reflect upon here is the apparent widespread support for this failing approach to the pandemic. Does a colonially-structured state draw upon collective colonial trauma of ‘Europe vs the Inca’, so often promoted and lauded in the national identity as definitive of Peruvianness and the construction of the nation, to influence citizens’ acceptance and unquestioning approach to the withdrawal of all civil liberties (including the right to exercise outside of the home) and absolute authority by the military? Did the new biological threat from the old colonial-foe influence national panic and the hasty reactions of the state, desperate to avoid a repeat of the past?  

As COVID-19-related articles have observed to exacerbation, it is the poor and densely populated without adequate access to health care who will suffer the most under this pandemic, with those of privilege able to safely ride out the virus in comfortable quarantine. Peru will be no different. As Andrea argued, the coloniality of power exercised by the state in using their military arsenal to subdue subjects will only affect those who must take to the streets in the first place, exacerbating inequalities. But importantly and uniquely in this case, the echoes of the colonial past may be shaping public reaction and relationship to the situation. It could be suggested that when COVID-19 came along the metaphorical-band-aid was ripped off to reveal that the colonial wound, perhaps never fully healed, would always be vulnerable to re-infection. It serves to ask, even if we may already be able to guess at the answer – in a post-pandemic, pro-militarised Peru, who will be disproportionately affected by the authority and will of soldiers with newly granted powers and a state content to impose martial law to control the population?  

A collective national identity that harks to an Inca-past may serve little when there continues to be a segment of the population that is denied liberated participation in the nation. It is the cruellest of ironies that in the past, as now, those most structurally vulnerable will be most susceptible not only to this virus, but to unequal, governmental powers- whether these are coming from Madrid, or from Lima.  


Rebecca Irons holds a PhD Medical Anthropology from UCL and is currently a visiting lecturer in the Department of Anthropology. Her research interests include gender, race, migration and reproductive health in Latin America.


References

Cueto, M. 2003. Stigma and Blame during an Epidemic: Cholera in Peru, 1991. Disease in the History of Modern Latin America: From Malaria to AIDS (Ed. Armus, D). Duke: Durham. 

Galindo, A. 1986. In Search of an Inca: Identity and Utopia in the Andes. Cambridge: London.  

Lugones, M. 2013. The Coloniality of Gender. In Globalization and the Decolonial Option (Ed. Mignolo, W. & Escobar, A). Routledge: London.  

Quijano, A. 2000. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from the South 1.3 (Ed. Mignolo, W). Duke University Press: North Carolina.


2 Responses to Colonial Wound, (Re)Infected: Pandemic in the Andes

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