Anyone who has known me for more than a couple of years knows that Iquitos, Peru, has been my second home for the past 15 years. I’ve traveled there several times a year since 2005 and have hundreds of friends in the city and the surrounding rainforest region.
Iquitos, the capital city of the Loreto region which sits on the Amazon River in the middle of the rainforest, is fast becoming one of the biggest disasters in the world during the COVID-19 crisis.
The largest city in the world not connected to the rest of the planet by roads, about half a million people now find themselves isolated against a microscopic threat armed with a failing medical system, third-world infrastructure, and severe poverty that all contribute to a situation that is almost indescribable.
I had originally planned to live in Iquitos because the one place I feel most at home is in the jungle. Besides the constant oppressive heat and humidity and the virtual lack of internet connectivity, Iquitos’ poverty makes foreigners who live there a certain target for crime. I decided I didn’t need any of that.
The COVID-19 crisis has hit Iquitos with a force almost anywhere else in the world. Poverty in an overcrowded city with poor sanitation services for many of the people made it one of the world’s most devastated cities
Right now 80% of hospital patients there require oxygen which is almost non-existent. Normally the hospital kept 20 bottles on oxygen on hand which was sufficient, but now they require about 500 bottles a day!
There are two local oxygen plants that are operating at full capacity, but even that is limited by frequent electrical outages. (Anyone who has been to Iquitos knows that is a normal part of life there.)
The newly appointed director of the Regional Hospital, Dr. Cesar Calampa, says that the are receiving only about 60 bottles of oxygen a day from Lima and are hoping to have their own plant online soon that will be able to produce another 120 a day.
Like everywhere else, overworked health care workers are being severely affected. Last night seven doctors were flown from to Lima to receive specialized care in ICU units. Three doctors died earlier in the week because there simply was no oxygen to help them breathe.
128 health care workers have been infected with the virus and 37 have been hospitalized. Dr. Calampa, who just took over his position on April 28, blames the problem on the lack of protective equipment.
Even more disheartening is that a huge new hospital on the city’s main east-west avenue has been under construction since 2017 and was scheduled to be completed last month.
Even worse, as the COVID pandemic struck, much of the rainforest was just getting over a major epidemic of dengue fever. Patients were coming into the hospitals infected with both.
A lack of coordination on many fronts between the Ministry of Health and the EsSalud insurance system (which also operates hospitals and clinics across Peru) was another factor that contributed to the current crisis in Iquitos.
Ray Fernández, an official from the Environmental Health Directorate of Loreto which is in charge of bringing patients to the hospitals as well as collecting dead bodies and seeing that they are buried properly, says that they are taking an average of 33 bodies a day to the cemetary in San Juan. Only 17 of those are coming from the hospitals.
His staff of originally 42 has been reduced to 34 due to infections and people unwilling to work. Fernández says that most of the deceased are over 35 and obese.
I really miss my other home and, even more, I miss my friends there and hope they are all safe and well. Hopefully I will be back there very, very soon with abrasos for all of you!