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Police also fired teargas into crowds of people as countrys coronavirus lockdown entered sixth week

Riot police in Peru have blockaded a major highway and fired teargas into crowds of people attempting to flee the capital city and return on foot to their rural hometowns as the countrys strict coronavirus lockdown entered its sixth week.

Local television images on Monday showed hundreds of families, including young children, trekking along highways with their belongings on their backs as they made long journeys to family homes.

Poor Peruvians have been trying to leave Lima since last week, many saying they had to choose between hunger or homelessness in the city or risking exposure to Covid-19 as they attempt to return home.

Here in Lima there are no longer any jobs, there is no longer any way to pay for food, we do not have any more savings, Maricela de la Cruz told the Associated Press.

We have done everything possible to stay the 30 quarantine days. Now we want to go back because we have a house, family, we have someone who can support us here in Lima we have absolutely no one, said De la Cruz, who was trying to return to Huancayo, in Perus central Andes.

Despite imposing some of the most stringent quarantine measures in Latin America since mid-March, Peru reported 16,325 coronavirus cases and 400 deaths on Monday, a figure which placed it second only to Brazil in the number of infections in the region. Brazil has a population seven times larger than Peru.

Yet the response of the Peruvian president, Martn Vizcarra, and his Brazilian counterpart could not be more different.

While the Brazilian leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently flouted social distancing rules and downplayed the Covid-19 pandemic, Vizcarra is widely seen by Peruvians to have reacted decisively to the pandemic, deploying troops and the police to enforce a lockdown and a nightly curfew.

Vizcarra said on Monday that the weeks ahead would be the most difficult and would require everyones highest capacity to respond.

The number of patients is close to exceeding the capacity of the health service, he said.

Alonso Segura, a former Peruvian finance minister, said the mass movements of people to the countryside showed the state response was pushed to its limits, despite having launched a huge stimulus package worth 90bn soles (21bn) equivalent to about 12% of GDP last month, which included millions of fortnightly cash transfers to poor families.

More than 70% of Peruvians work in the unregulated economy, according to the countrys statistics institute.

The government cannot push the severe lockdown much longer, said Segura. Companies are going bankrupt and the desperation of the people is increasing. More than an economic issue, its a social issue, he added.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/20/peru-riot-police-highway-teargas-coronavirus-lockdown