Deadly Negligence — Peru’s Red Cross & Cold Deaths in Andes
At last count (mid August), 514 Peruvians had died of pneumonia brought on by extreme cold this year, most of them children under five. Most reasonable people would call that an emergency.
Not Peru’s Red Cross, however.
In a bulletin issued August 4, 2009, the Peruvian Red Cross (PRC) issued a general statement about the cold deaths in Puno, noting the low temperatures, the rise in pneumonia cases and the deaths of “113″ children (a number much lower than that cited by other news sources in early August). After low-balling the number of deaths, the bulletin explained that the PRC “has been assisting the affected people with medicines, blankets and food items. Additionally, the PRC has launched a nationwide campaign to collect donations for the emergency response.”
Strange. During June and July I didn’t hear or read a word about this “nationwide” PRC campaign. There was plenty of news about efforts by Civil Defense (which gave out 60 tons of clothing and blankets by August) and Caritas (which distributed 1,200 tons of food, clothing and medicine by early August), but the Peruvian Red Cross? Must have been a very low-key affair. Hmmmm.
Stranger yet, the bulletin goes on to state, in bold-face type:
The Peruvian Red Cross has determined that external assistance is not required, and is therefore not seeking funding or other assistance from donors at this moment. Since this is a recurrent emergency and the National Society was prepared and included in its preventive measures the successful implementation of an awareness campaign, no DREF funds will be requested.
Please reread that paragraph. It says that the PRC does not want the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IRCRC) to send emergency relief aid to Peru to save people from dying from the cold. DREF stands for Disaster Relief Emergency Funds.
Let me explain how the IRCRC works. The IRCRC is an international organization that has sister organizations or “societies” in countries throughout the world. When a natural disaster or humanitarian emergency hits a country, that nation can call on the IRCRC to provide food, clothing, medicine, medical equipment, emergency housing and field hospitals, plus qualified disaster workers (doctors, nurses, social workers, volunteers), to the affected zone. According to the IRCRC’s website, DREF funds are typically released within 24 hours (yes, that quickly).
There’s only one catch and it isn’t a catch really: The only way the IRCRC can give emergency aid to a country is if that country requests it. No matter how huge or catastrophic an emergency, the IRCRC cannot step in unless the country’s own Red Cross or Red Crescent society asks the IRCRC to do so. Even if people are dying, like they are in Puno and Juliaca.
This is what has happened this year with the cold deaths in the Andes. The Peruvian Red Cross has issued a bulletin saying, Don’t send medical workers, don’t set up field hospitals. People die every year from the cold in the puna, so it’s not emergency. Let us, the PRC, handle it our own way. We have our own little disaster-preparedness program, which kicks in months after the cold spell starts, and we think that’s good enough for the people who live way up there.
In other words, let the people of the Andes die.
I would love to report that the Peru Red Cross has done a fantastic job of bringing medical aid to the people of the puna, all on its own, but I can’t. The PRC did nothing in May, June and July, when an early cold wave began weakening tens of thousands of people in the highlands and triggered hundreds of deaths.
Strangely, after issuing its August 4 “Don’t Help Us” bulletin, the Peru Red Cross got busy banging its own drum. A news item appeared in the August 10 issue of Peruvian Times trumpeting the PRC’s relief efforts, claiming that ”as part of its “Together against the Cold” Campaign, the Peruvian Red Cross [had] shipped more than 50 tons of warm clothing, blankets and medicine to 11,290 families throughout Peru’s southern Altiplano, including Cuzco, Puno, Apurimac and Huancavelica.”
However, a quick check with the official web site of the American Red Cross reveals that (U.S.) American Red Cross workers were instrumental in getting the aid to the affected regions. The news item does not specify whose funding, that of the PRC or ARC or both, underwrote the relief effort, which was less than that given by Civil Defense and Caritas.
Note that no teams of doctors or nurses were brought to the highlands. No field hospitals were set up. By this point, early August, more than 77,000 people in Puno alone had been treated for pneumonia in grossly understaffed hospitals. The time had passed for blankets and sweaters. People needed nebulizers and the constant medical care that pneumonia and pneumonia-like diseases require.
So, why didn’t the PRC jump on the problem months ago? Ongoing politics, it seems.
A spokesperson for the PRC blamed the Peruvian government for the deaths, which the PRC refuses to classify as an “emergency” because they happen each year and are therefore preventable:
“Government authorities deal with low temperatures as a risk or a possibility, and not as part of a sustained policy of the State to adopt permanent prevention throughout the year to avoid more deaths,” Susana Silva, [PRC] Deputy Health Ombudswoman, said in an official statement.
Gee. I’m glad the PRC has its priorities straight. It’s job is finding the right entity to blame, not saving lives.
It’s a deadly game that benefits no one in Peru, least of all the hundreds of campesinos dying in the highlands. All over the world, countries suffering from drought, earthquakes, deadly epidemics, floods — these countries receive billions of dollars’ worth of prompt emergency aid and disaster-preparedness aid because their Red Cross or Red Crescent society knew that its job is to supplement its own funds by asking for IRCRC help ASAP.
What the hell is wrong with the Peru Red Cross? And why do Peruvians permit the small-minded people who run this Lima-based “aid society” to continue to do an abysmal job and to deny Peruvians the international aid that the vulnerable nation deserves?
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