[BigDataSur-COVID] On not being visible to the state: The case of Peru

The Peruvian tragedies are manifold. This blog post directs attention to one in particular related to the matter of counting during the pandemic. Although most of the debate focuses on how governments count the infected and the deceased, this post reflects on how the Peruvian state counts the living to protect their wellbeing – and how it fails to do so.

by Diego Cerna Aragon

The World Health Organization has recently declared that South America is the new epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peru has the second largest number of registered infections in the region and is second only to Brazil, which however has almost seven times the population of Peru. Initially, the Peruvian government was lauded for its swift response and the implementation strict measures to halt the transmission of the virus. More recently, however, the country has been featured on the international press as a place where the expansion of the disease simply cannot be contained, despite the harsh restrictions imposed from early on. Stories of inner massive displacements and testimonies of the employment of Venezuelan immigrants to pick up dead bodies give an idea of how Peru is currently dealing with the pandemic.

Targeting in the midst of a pandemic

On March 19th – three days after decreeing a national state of emergency and quarantine – the Peruvian government announced that it was going to distribute a 380 soles subsidy (approximately 110 USD) to vulnerable households. The idea behind this plan was to offer some economic relief to people who had to stop working given the emergency measures. In a country where over 70 percent of the labor force is in the informal sector – meaning these workers are not included in any state or company payrolls and rely on self-employment and/or casual gigs – enforcing a quarantine meant that the majority of the working population had to give up its daily income and way of life.

The database from which the vulnerable household information was retrieved is in the hands of the Household Targeting System (SISFOH). As it was originally used to target poor and extremely poor households for the provision of social welfare benefits, this database was deemed by state officials capable to provide accurate information about which households would need financial assistance during the quarantine. Quickly, the public de turned into a debate of economic definitions: what is the meaning of being vulnerable? Who should be included in the registry to receive government assistance? As part of a well-disciplined neoliberal state, Peruvian national government agencies always strive to keep any kind of social spending as streamlined as possible. Yet as days went by, it became clear that the more than two million households initially targeted were not the only ones requiring assistance. Consequently, the government announced a new subsidy on March 26th, this time targeting “independent workers”.

The SISFOH database has one defining characteristic: it usually works under an on-demand logic. This means that unless a household requests to be evaluated to receive social welfare benefits, the system assigns a default socioeconomic classification based on cross-referencing information from other databases, such as census, property registry, and electricity consumption. Under normal circumstances, households in urban areas that do not request evaluation are not included amongst the recipients of social welfare benefits. In cases where a household requests to be evaluated, on the other hand, incertitude is the rule. Neither the applicants nor the local bureaucrats who work for the system know exactly how it operates, given that the classification algorithm is opaque to them. According to technocrats from the national government, this feature is intended to curb possible attempts to game the system. In the exceptional context of the pandemic, however, the government decided to test the accuracy of the database to target households in need. Unfortunately, it failed to provide a broad enough safety net. Later on, the government realized its mistake and the Minister of Development and Social Inclusion (MIDIS) announced that eventually it would have to change methods and start actively evaluating households.

The failure to provide a lifeline to people in need did not go without consequences. By mid-April, a month after the quarantine began, people started leaving Lima, Peru’s capital and most populated city, because a thirty-days wait, they had not received any state assistance. They had depleted their savings, could no longer pay their rents, and were evicted by their landlords. Without anywhere to sleep and any money to buy food, many Peruvians started walking back to their hometowns in the countryside, given that all long-distance transportation was banned due to the emergency measures.

Additionally, another critical issue surfaced related to subsidy distribution. Given that less than 40percent of the adult population is integrated in the Peru’s banking system, a large portion of people could not receive the subsidy in a bank account. Rather, people had to go to bank offices to receive the subsidy in cash. Furthermore, many were confused about the multiple subsidy announcements made by the government and, given their uncertain situations, people went to the banks simply to inquire if they were going to receive subsidies. As later recognized by the government, the large concentration of people in banks proved to be a major vehicle of transmission for the novel coronavirus.

After repeated demands in social media, the government announced a new “universal” subsidy on April 23rd. Despite the name, the subsidy was not really universal. As President Martin Vizcarra explained, the distribution of this subsidy would be determined through “reverse targeting.” Still relying in part on the SISFOH database, this subsidy was projected to reach every household that did not have a member on state or company payrolls – 6.8 million households in total. Instead of acknowledging the limitations of targeting and opting for an actual universal subsidy, the government insisted on streamlining its social spending. On May 25th– 32 days after the announcement of the universal subsidy and 71 days after the quarantine started – the government indicated that so far 3.4 million households had received a subsidy, making it only half of the 6.8 million goal.

As it may be clear by now, the main problem of the Peruvian government is not the availability of funding – as every time authorities announce a new subsidy, they commit to increasing their spending. The main problem, this article argues, is leaders’ stubbornness in addressing the consequences of a public health crisis using technologies devised for poverty alleviation programs. Targeting technologies are designed to restrain spending, they are created to filter people. Moreover, in the case of the weak Peruvian state, they rely on irregular practices of information collection. Even before the pandemic, applicants to social welfare benefits and local bureaucrats complained about the stringent reasoning of the system and how its tools (e.g., forms) failed to grasp the material precarity experience by the citizens. A technocratic asset – the supposed rigorousness of the algorithmic method – was a woe for those in need. In short, these are technologies that, by design and implementation, render some people invisible.

Being visible in the Global South

Creative minds in the Western cultural industry have been prolific producers of dystopian fictions where state-like actors know every little detail about every member of the population. The case of Peru is quite the opposite: it is a state which barely knows its population. With tragic consequences, in particular in the middle of a pandemic. What we have witnessed – “invisible” people who do not receive any assistance from the state, walking for days to return to their hometowns, without having something to eat, without knowing if they are carriers of a deadly virus – seems like a real nightmare scenario.

Liberal anxieties in the Global North – sometimes rapidly adopted by educated elites in developing countries – have focused academics attention largely on issues of privacy. What terrifies them is being identified by state actors, probably because they do not want to be treated as their governments regularly treat the minorities in their countries. We already hear warnings on how everyone should be afraid of a “Chinese model” of surveillance, as if China was the only country to surveil its citizens. We will probably never see a protest sign reading “We want to be visible to the state!” And yet, millions of persons worldwide belong to the informal sector, a limbo-like domain where individuals participate in daily social and economic activities while not being completely integrated. This may function – precariously – as long as the economy keeps running but as soon as it stops – like during a quarantine – the downfall is catastrophic. Without being part of a state registry the help cannot arrive, at least not in an adequate and timely fashion.

In a context where many of the deaths remain unofficial and many people literally cannot eat because they are not counted, being visible to the state is a privilege.

About the author 

Diego Cerna Aragon is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the program of Comparative Media Studies, and a research assistant in the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab.