Experiencing Corona Virus in the Andes

LUCIA STAVIG

 A mix of huaynos, cumbia, and bird song still greet the sun in the Andean community in which I am riding out the month-long quarantine. At first glance, it might seem that not much has changed for this community in the age of COVID-19. Women in polleras still take their pigs and sheep to pasture and work parties continue to dot the green checkered fields harvesting potatoes and fava beans. But as the quarantine is prolonged, there are tangible signs that COVID-19 is affecting everyday life.  

 The community’s population of 1800 has almost doubled in the last couple of weeks as people come home from Cusco, Lima, Arequipa and other cities to ride out the quarantine. According to the mayor of the District of Huarocondo, a full 40% of residents work in and around Machu Picchu in the tourist trade. Far from being isolated, this community and those surrounding are deeply tied into the global economy. In fact, it is these ties that make rural life possible: due to extremely low prices for agricultural products, most families in the community have at least one family member working in Cusco or Lima to bring in cash money.

Under quarantine, this income has dried up. This has the potential to severely affect families’ ability to educate children, to pay ordinary medical expenses or weather unexpected emergencies. It does not seem, however, that it will affect families’ ability to feed themselves. This is a big difference that comuneros note between their situation and that of city dwellers. When I ask why people are coming home, many have said that it is better to be here in the countryside during the pandemic because “Here we can breathe fresh air. There is no pollution.” But the most cited reason people are coming home is access to food.  “Here we have potatoes, fava beans, corn, wild greens, guinea pig and pigs. What will they eat in the
city?”

At first, I was perplexed; I have family in Lima and the multiple times I have asked, they kept saying that there was, indeed, food. But while the food supply chain has not broken down, people don’t have money with which to buy it.  Many rural immigrants to the city buy the day’s food with the money they earn from the day’s labor. With Lima at an almost complete standstill, people working in the informal sector have been hardest hit, even as the government has approved S/760 to over 75% of Peruvian families.  As one person put it, “in the city, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.”


As the quarantine pushed past the month mark, the mayor of the district of Huarocondo, Anta, Cusco organized a truck to take food to Lima. People lined the streets anxious to send sacks of agricultural products to their families. In an odd reversal in which income from the city makes staying in the countryside possible, it is now the countryside that is sustaining immigrant life in the city. People undertake these acts of ayni not only to keep their families from going hungry, but also to hep guard them against the coronavirus.

Eating from the chacra is considered a protective factor against coronavirus. “I’ve eaten potatoes, quinoa, kiwicha (ancient Andean grains), and moraya (freeze-dried potato) my whole life. Nothing will happen to me. People who eat rice and noodles, they will die,” said a comunero in his mid-50s. His statement points to the continued strength of ancestral foodways. Where rice and noodles signaled modernity and economic advancement, potatoes, quinoa, moraya, etc. all marked stigmatised indigeneity and poverty. During the current outbreak, however, these foods and knowledge of medicinal plants are taking on new life and importance.


There are also those who feel that their genetic and cultural heritage will protect them from the virus.  “Nothing will happen to us. We have Inca blood, say some, while others, perhaps looking back on historical pandemics, wonder whether their immune systems will be able to fight this off.  Both these statements reveal complex embodied histories of oppression and survivance[1]. On the one hand, Quechua peoples have used ancestral knowledge (alongside colonial technologies) to sustain indigenous life for the past 500 years. On the other, land dispossession, pandemics, feudalism, poverty, anemia, forced sterilization, and lack of access to health care are only part of the litany of abuses that have shaped the bodies, minds, and histories of Quechua peoples.

Coronavirus is already being woven into story of the Andes. Many people I have spoken to have said that even though they are afraid, they are glad that the whole world has had to stop. “Pachamama needs a rest from all the polluting we do.” Several people in the community have explained to me that coronavirus is a result of human’s mistreatment of Mother Earth. They do not see it as a punishment, however, but as a reminder of human’s reciprocal relationship with pachamama as laid out in the Andean cosmovision. They argue that what we are living through a pachakuti, the end of one age and the beginning of another. These moments, they tell me, are always painful, like a birth. “Mother Earth is in labor and we need to take care of her so that she continues to take care of us.” Lessons we can all learn…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucia is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

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[1] “[s]urvivance, in the native sense of survivable, is more than survival, more than endurance or mere response; the stories of survivance are an active presence… Survivance in my use of the word, means a native sense of presence the motion of sovereignty [as self-determination] and will to resist dominance. Survivance is not just survival but also resistance, not heroic or tragic, but the tease of tradition, and my sense of survivance outwits dominance and victimry (Vizenor, 1999, Fugitive Poses in Doerfler, 191).

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