Social inequalities seen through the view from an apartment complex in North Barranco, Lima.
Political strategies of representation and diversion of attention
Particular representations of the poor in political and media and social media discourse are utilized to gain consensus over the government’s use of riot police and the military, while power relations remain obscured. This mechanism of shifting attention by representation allows for the erosion of basic human rights and the implementation of punitive policies, while reinforcing social norms and values. This mechanism also diverts attention away from events and facts that do not serve the government’s image, such as the chronic underfunding of Peruvian healthcare. The government invested nearly a third of the Latin American average in healthcare between 2000 and 20177, and the accessibility and availability of services is extremely low outside Lima. The anxiety and misplaced anger created by these media representations serve to maintain the inequality necessary for the government’s exploitation and control of the population.
The normalization of social exclusion through media representations and discourse have real effects on individuals. Scapegoating the poor for the national crisis is essential to achieve support for the government’s COVID-19 response. At the same time, it diverts public attention away from the government’s failure to: support marginalised areas; reliably transfer emergency cash to families and individuals that desperately needed it, including unprocessed migrants without an address or bank account; and provide protection, services, and shelters for women and minors victimised by domestic violence. The videos and images of those who break the quarantine appeal to the sense of justice of those who stay at home, (and it is important to emphasize that they can stay at home), creating a sense of outrage and disgust. This mechanism of shifting responsibility becomes a political practice to reinforce social norms, and is used to disrupt public perception and to naturalize poverty, while creating a division between populations that matter and those who do not. The dominant discourse of victim-blaming in Peru makes the individual responsible for their circumstances, overlooking the stigmatized group’s lack of freedom of choice. This strategy of blaming the disadvantaged for their unfortunate circumstances, and in this case even for the COVID-19 crisis, hides the class struggle of unequal opportunities, access, and care, as well as the uneven distribution of labour along racial and gender lines.
Similarly, victim-blaming in gender-based violence is essential to securing support for the government’s actions and inactions in responding to gender-based violence, and at the same time diverts public attention away from the government choosing year after year to not fund or underfund services, failing to offer comprehensive sex education to young people, and not training judiciary employees on gender-based violence and relevant human rights. The victims of violence are often depicted in the media as in some way responsible for the violence committed against them to somehow justify the act of violation. As with the representation of the poor during the COVID-19 crisis, this same mechanism becomes a political practice that reinforces social norms, disrupt public perception and naturalizes violence against women and minors. This normative discourse of the individual responsibility of the victim hides the uneven distribution of power along class, racial and gender lines.
Dominant discourses around race, gender, and class are vital to the Peruvian government maintaining the status quo and releasing itself from the responsibilities of providing healthcare, education and basic services to its citizens, as well as basic human rights, including the right to sexual health to women and minors. Privilege and links to powerful actors are key in Peru’s social practices, and critical in determining experiences of the COVID-19 crisis, but remain hidden behind the discourse of responsibility. The outrage and fear provoked by media representations allow the consensus on the sometimes violent arrests of tens of thousands of citizens caught breaking the lockdown by police. This consent to the erosion of rights is possible in the Peruvian context, where the discourse of the irresponsible and ignorant citizen is opposed to the image of a caring, firm and above all very capable government.
The COVID-19 crisis has made gendered class and racial inequalities more visible than ever before, highlighting the dominance of corporate powers and patriarchal policies that particularly harm women and minors. Although the government could draw on substantial savings made over the last decade, the priority has been to please investors and large corporates8, while treating populations as dispensable. The government gave companies the freedom to dismiss employees without pay, resulting in at least 2,6 million job losses between March and June9. Meanwhile, it failed to address gendered issues such as gender-based violence, the disappearances of women10, and care-work, to name but a few. Placing power at the centre of the analysis of the COVID-19 crisis in Peru allows us to see political strategies and a power system that work with particular representations, making certain issues visible and others invisible, where representation causes exclusion and injustice. Media representations allow for control of the population, shifting the focus of public attention from where the real capacity and responsibility to handle the crises (both the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of gender-based violence) lies – with the government. The poorest parts of Peruvian society have been hit exceptionally hard by the crisis: economically, in the form of bearing the largest numbers of infections and death, and socially by being blamed for the spread of the virus. What the crises of COVID-19 and gender-based violence have highlighted more than ever before is the urgent need for inclusion of these vulnerable populations into what is considered the basic human rights of the privileged in Peru, such as water, sanitation, access to healthcare, and education, and to strive for an inclusive and feminist democratic politics characterised by equality. In achieving that, we must challenge dominant discourses and shift the focus from the victims of institutional and sexual violence on to the violators, i.e. the state and the perpetrators of violence.
- Peru had one of the longest and strictest lockdown measures globally with strict curfews and the ban on interprovincial travel and the use of private vehicles.
- Videos and images of those who broke the quarantine often circulated on WhatsApp and Instagram during the quarantine and with condemning comments of holding those who broke the quarantine responsible for future deaths.
- President Vizcarra in his televised speech to confirm the first case in Peru, detailed how the first case was a Peruvian traveller returning from Europe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fdp2kEMhG7g
- Carlos Noriega, 24 April 2020, Nodal. Miles de personas huyen de Lima a pie en busca comida en sus pueblos https://www.nodal.am/2020/04/exodo-masivo-en-peru-miles-de-personas-retornan-a-pie-a-sus-pueblos-por-hambre-y-falta-de-trabajo/
- UNDP Peru, Aprill 2020. La otra pandemia: violencia en el hogar en tiempos de cuarentena.
- Dulcie Leimbach, 20 September 2018, Passblue. Rape in Peru – stopping a deadly epidemic. https://www.passblue.com/2018/09/20/rape-in-peru-stopping-a-deadly-epidemic/
- World Bank, 2017. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.CHEX.GD.ZS?locations=PE
- Global Business Reports, 12 May 2020. https://www.gbreports.com/article/mining-in-the-shadow-of-covid-19
- Instituto Nacional de Estadistica e Informatica, 7 July 2020. Situacion del Mercado laboral en Lima Metropolitana. https://www.inei.gob.pe/media/MenuRecursivo/boletines/07-informe-tecnico-n07_mercado-laboral-abr.-May.-Jun.%202020.pdf
- Óscar Chumpitaz, 7 October 2020, La Republica. Cada día desaparecen 14 mujeres en el Perú, según cifras de Defensoría del Pueblo. https://larepublica.pe/sociedad/2020/10/07/cada-dia-desaparecen-14-mujeres-en-el-peru/