Jennifer Sierra

My Experience with COVID-19 So Far

On February 3rd of 2020, I traveled to Peru with the purpose of conducting 12 consecutive months of ethnographic research. These plans became threatened once the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Peru in early March. I arrived at Pucallpa—my fieldsite—on February 8th and I had only completed one month of research when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Lima, Peru. My first reaction was to plan for staying at my fieldsite while taking special precautions. The idea of the virus arriving in Pucallpa seemed almost impossible at the time. My Shipibo-Konibo friends started referring to the virus as “the rich people virus” because only those who could afford to travel to Europe had contracted the virus. 

Pucallpa is a cheerful small urban town in the Western Amazons. As opposed to other Amazonian towns in Peru, Pucallpa enjoys a more urban life by having two malls with two large grocery stores and a handful of medical clinics to treat mild diseases. On a normal basis, I feel very safe living in this town except for a few health threats like dengue outbreaks that impact the region during the rainy season. When the University of Michigan reached out to me to request that I came back to the U.S. for safety reasons, I was most worried about how hard the dengue outbreak was affecting the region this year. Yet, the idea of both a dengue and COVID-19 outbreak hitting Pucallpa started to worry us all.

I decided to come back to Michigan upon considering the very precarious and already stressed medical facilities and staff in Pucallpa from the ongoing dengue outbreak. On the other hand, food and other goods could become rapidly scarce during a COVID-19 outbreak and response. I did not want to compete for health services or food and other resources with locals who should rightfully have access to these first. In other words, I realized that by staying in my fieldsite I was going to occupy too much space and at the same time put my health at risk especially considering that I suffer from asthma.

Returning to the States was difficult. I had bought a flight scheduled to leave on March 16th. But on the night of March 15th the President of Peru announced the start of a strict quarantine order requesting all citizens to stay home, this order also included the closing of all borders starting March 16th. My flight to the U.S was cancelled an hour after this announcement. But since the closing of borders was to start March 16th at 11:59pm, I frantically tried to find other flights for the next day. I was lucky to book another flight the next morning to Bogota via Lima and Cali, Colombia by virtue of my Colombian citizenship. From there I purchased a separate flight to Detroit via Fort Lauderdale. It was a two-day journey in which I got to spend the night at my mom’s home in Bogota. I worried about exposing my family because I couldn’t resist seeing them before travel restrictions and health safety measures would require us to be apart for an indefinite amount of time. Upon arriving in Bogota, I learned that my checked bag had been stuck in Lima and that I wouldn’t have it back until the lifting of travel restrictions. In this luggage I had packed my entire life since I did not know where I was to live after fieldwork. But losing whatever I had packed did not matter at all when faced by questions such as “will my friends in Pucallpa be okay?”, “when will I see my family in Colombia again?” and “what was I to do in Michigan? I hadn’t even secured housing!”

These questions remain unanswered. COVID-19 did arrive in Pucallpa infecting my friends and their families. The safety protocols for a person diagnosed with COVID-19 are untenable for the Shipibo-Konibos. Clean water is scarce. Poverty leaves people choosing between social distancing and feeding themselves and their family. Hospitals there are full and rightfully mistrusted and so those infected rely on their family to care for them to whom the virus quickly spreads. My friends have been looking after their parents and grandparents with COVID-19 while falling ill themselves. They have now seen their grandparents die from lack of oxygen, unable to buy extremely expensive oxygen tanks or pay for expensive private medical clinics or full public hospitals where many other loved ones have already died. In Bogota, my mom’s neighborhood has been the one with most cases of COVID-19. Most quarantine measures have lifted in the wealthy north side of the city while the poorer south remains on lockdown without sufficient resources and facing classist criticisms of their inability to practice social distancing. My mom, my sister and her two-year-old haven’t left home for three months now. I wonder how my nephew is making sense of staying in an apartment for that long.

In the meantime, I read and reply to daily updates from my family and friends abroad. I try to research and figure out how to salvage my academic and career plans. But often all I can manage is to ask, “who will be left?” and how much I would have liked to have had the money to give to my best friend in Pucallpa for the oxygen tank her grandmother needed to stay alive.