Sunday night at 8:20 p.m. I received a message from my Peruvian tour guide: “Borders are closing, get out now.” My father and I weren’t surprised. We had been trying and failing to book flights for the last day and half, only to be met with cancellation after cancellation as airlines put their bottom lines ahead of the safety of their passengers.
On our way to the airport, we called the American Embassy in a frenzy. They told us there were no more flights out of the country, and we had to find a safe place before midnight, when the policy would go into effect. They offered no assistance and no protection, and they gave us the wrong information. The travel ban wouldn’t go into effect for another 24 hours.
We are not the only ones affected by this blunder. There are hundreds of Americans trapped here, and after speaking to a dozen or so, I discovered that we were lucky to even hear the news of the travel ban. Most Americans received no alert from the embassy, despite having registered their travel, and little notice from our government about the seriousness of the situation. One couple from West Virginia heard from their hotel, and others in Cusco only learned the news when they showed up for their canceled flight. In less than 24 hours, tourists, doctors, students, mission workers, and families were all left behind with no way out of Peru. The embassy was clear: Even if we die tomorrow, there is nothing they will do.
The Peruvian government has every right to place the safety of its citizens above all else. This is an unprecedented crisis, and staying healthy is more important than anything else. As a public health student at Yale, I believe this is a proper epidemiological measure to take during the pandemic. Peru will be ravaged if the virus is not contained, and the protection of our fellow man is critical above all else.
The people of Peru have been nothing but kind and accommodating in the wake of this crisis, even helping strangers get to the airport and find food. But the lack of warning and support from our own government is unconscionable. Some of us trapped here have health issues and dependent loved ones left at home. My father is nearing the end of his supply of heart medication in a country with no health care infrastructure to support him. A young woman with asthma is here at 11,000 feet above sea level with dwindling medication. There are also American citizens trapped here with disabilities, chronic ailments and injuries and no access to care. This is unacceptable. Leaving foreigners here will take away resources from Peruvians who need it.
Americans left here in Peru don’t expect special treatment, and we understand that we are not the only stranded travelers. However, Peru is not Europe or Canada; the government has no agreement with the U.S. and no obligation to help us in life-threatening situations. This is why we are asking for sweeping action from our government to make sure that when this quarantine is lifted, there are planes waiting to take us home. This is why we are asking the government to be firm with airlines that refuse to fly empty planes to pick up Americans. We understand that resources are precious and that cases will begin to overwhelm our country in a matter of days, but we are citizens too and our rights do not disappear when we cross the border.
Every American who wants to come home should have the opportunity to do so within a reasonable period of time. Other countries such as Israel and Mexico are mobilizing airlines to send charters. Why can’t the most powerful country on earth do the same? We are calling on our lawmakers to remember us and consider us. We will gladly quarantine ourselves for the protection of our fellow Americans when we arrive, but we deserve the chance to come back to our home soil safely before the pandemic peaks. We matter, and we are here.
ELIZABETH EDGERLEY is an MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health.