(Recasts throughout with background, analysis and commentary)
By Marco Aquino
LIMA, May 5 (Reuters) - The number of new coronavirus cases confirmed in Peru on Tuesday soared above 50,000, highlighting the country’s struggle to tamp down the virus’ spread with the infection rate yet to reach its peak, a medical expert said.
Copper-rich Peru was one of the first Latin American countries to implement a shut down when coronavirus landed, but cases have doubled in the last 10 days. Peru ranks only behind Brazil for contagions in the region.
Significant outbreaks have been uncovered in food markets, at mines, in prisons, among homeless communities and police forces, laying bare the patchy enforcement of government-ordered social isolation measures.
Protective equipment shortages have sparked protests at hospitals while poverty has complicated efforts to persuade people to stay home.
Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra announced on Tuesday that the total number of people infected amounted to 51,189, up 3,817 from the previous day; while 100 more dead took the tally to 1,444.
Peru recorded its first coronavirus case on March 6 and within 25 days hit 1,000 infections. It took just 14 more days to reach 10,000, according to a Reuters tally.
The first death from COVID-19 came on March 19 and a month later the figure had risen to 348, quadrupling again two weeks later.
Ciro Maguiña, an infectious disease specialist and vice-dean of Peru’s College of Physicians, said the “worst stage” of the outbreak was still ahead.
“I calculate that we should enter the peak of cases in mid-May,” he told Reuters.
Peru’s ability to contain the virus has been hampered by its high poverty rate. About 21% of its 33 million people live on less than $102 a month, official statistics say.
Hot zones for contagion were also detected among the long queues of people that formed outside banks seeking the cash subsidies announced by government for those left destitute by job losses or income sources disappearing.
“The population has not adhered to (the isolation measures) and you can’t blame them because many people are poor, unemployed, migrant or in informal employment and still have to find ways to eat,” said Maguiña.
Police cracking down on those breaking the rules have detained thousands of people. But they often operate without protective equipment and some 2,000 have themselves contracted the virus, along with 510 cadets in a police academy, the government confirmed.
The country’s key mining sector has also been hit. Last week, Antamina copper mine, controlled by BHP Group Plc and Glencore Plc, said it had detected 210 cases after conducting 600 COVID-19 tests.
Three sources told Reuters the mine failed to follow national lockdown regulations in mid-March, only suspending operations a month later.
When Vizcarra took the first measures in March to curb the virus and soften the blow for the country’s poorest, his approval rating jumped to 87% - its highest level at since he took office in early 2018, Ipsos said.
In April, despite hospitals reporting shortages of masks and bodies stacked in corridors, it remained high at 83%.
The government has doubled its testing in the past two weeks, reaching 406,579 probes by Tuesday, Vizcarra said.
A lack of oxygen devices in Peru’s more remote corners has now emerged as a potential problem.
Two doctors diagnosed with the virus and admitted to intensive care in a hospital in northeast Loreto died on Sunday due to a shortage of oxygen cylinders, the dean of the College of Physicians, Miguel Palacios, said.
Health Minister Victor Zamora said on Twitter on Tuesday that he has sent 120 new cylinders to Loreto.
“Today, more than ever, we need the population to join us in this fight, strictly following the instructions of the health authorities and respecting quarantine,” he wrote. “We will win this battle together!”
Luis Solari, Peru’s former health minister, faulted the government for some decisions, including the introduction of a gendered quarantine which failed to reduce crowds and was shelved shortly afterwards.
He pointed to the reshuffling of the health and interior ministers since the pandemic hit, the latter after allegations of corruption due to purchases of supplies by the police.
Nonetheless, he said, Vizcarra - who has announced one of the region’s most ambitious financial rescues package, worth 8.8% of GDP - has so far kept the public faith. “We are in a strange situation in which the man in the driving seat isn’t driving, yet he remains popular in the polls amid a pandemic that every week he says has peaked, yet the peak never arrives,” he said.
Reporting by Marco Aquino; writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Lisa Shumaker