In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicaragua has been living an alternative reality. President Daniel Ortega and vice president, his wife Rosario Murillo, have neglected the pandemic. While world health organizations and governments in other countries have instructed their citizens to quarantine, wear masks, and adopt measures of social distancing, they have done just the opposite. Today, 980 people, according to a non-governmental estimate, who had the symptoms of COVID-19 have died in Nicaragua, the highest number in Central America. Ortega says that these deaths are due to “pneumonia”.
The problem is nothing new. The Nicaraguan government has been neglecting the health system and leaving people to die since 2018.
The recent neglect became evident two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. On March 13 – while neighboring nations such as El Salvador, Costa Rica and Honduras declared a state of emergency – Murillo promoted a march entitled “Love in the time of COVID-19” and declared that to fight the virus, he had to do it “with love and faith”. Stores, schools, and government offices remained open. However, behind the facade of this declaration of love, there are all the human rights abuses that the couple has been perpetrating since Ortega's return to power in 2006.
In April 2018, massive anti-government protests erupted across Nicaragua. Citizens, and especially students, were injured or killed by the police and paramilitary groups. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, some 317 people died in 4 months. As part of this scenario, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health was already committing abuses against the population.
For example, Alvaro Conrado, 15, who was shot in the neck by a sniper while protesting, was denied access to the nearby Cruz Azul public hospital in Managua, the capital. They transported him to the Baptist Hospital, where he died hours later. According to the Baptist Hospital medical team, Alvaro would have survived if the Cruz Azul medical team had treated him.
Why would a public hospital refuse to manage the wounded? Because the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health is controlled by Ortega and Murillo. During the protests, the medical team was threatened with layoffs if they helped protesters. The Ministry of Health dismissed 135 people, including doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. Most of them left the country due to constant persecution by government authorities. Now, two years later, Ortega and Murillo, along with the Ministry of Health, continue to inflict human rights abuses on the population by minimizing the danger of the pandemic.
Hospitals are filling up. Undercover burials late at night show the situation is out of control. A video from the AFP news channel reported that a funeral home buried 200 people in one night. The city of Chinandega, in the west of the country, attracted international attention when videos of “quick burials” circulated on social media. Vice President Muriello defined the burials as “false news.”
On May 19, a statement from the Health Ministry said Nicaragua was doing a great job, despite the fact that the number of official COVID-19 cases had skyrocketed from 25 to 254 in a week. These numbers also contradicted those registered by the interdisciplinary collaboration project El Observatorio Ciudadano COVID-19, which as of June 5 reported 3,458 “suspected” cases of contagion.
Doctors are living their worst nightmare. A doctor at Hospital España in Chinandega said that hospital authorities continue to ignore security measures and do not provide personal protective equipment. “He is literally throwing us into a slaughterhouse,” he said.
Doctors fear a “viral genocide” in the country as a result of government actions and have called for an immediate four-week “national voluntary quarantine”. More than 500 doctors signed a document insisting that Ortega-Murillo must take the appropriate measures before it is too late. Again, the vice president reacted and said that the doctors were “spreading lies,” raising the question of why they are secretly burying the bodies if they have died of pneumonia. Nicaragua, where the weak health infrastructure was already poorly equipped to contain a high influx of patients, now witnesses corpses outside hospitals.
️ ️Entrance to the morgue of the German Hospital. The situation only worsens: The average number of daily deaths is 10. Authorities have set up a room for patients with # Covid19, and another that they have named “Pre Covid”. Healthcare personnel alarmed, but regime denies seriousness pic.twitter.com/H9Mo1Ry10I
– Wilfredo Miranda (@PiruloAr) May 18, 2020
Ortega and Murillo's neglect regarding the pandemic was not a surprise, given the ruling couple's pattern of perpetrating human rights abuses.
Today, as in 2018, doctors are in a difficult situation: speaking out against the Ministry of Health or facing the risk of being fired and, eventually, forced to flee the country due to persecution. Or they may decide to stay and work without proper medical equipment and risk becoming infected with COVID-19.
Opposition members also report that they may be denied medical care in public hospitals. Wendi Juarez, former political prisoner and member of We build Nicaragua, described the situation:
By going to public hospitals as an opposition member you run the risk of not getting tested, because the medical staff decides who gets tested and who doesn't.
Going to public hospitals as a member of the opposition runs the risk of not being tested, because medical personnel decide who gets tested and who doesn't.
He said that to receive immediate medical attention it would have to be through the medical attention hotline, Nicaraguan Medical Unit.
Meanwhile, Nicaraguans do their best to survive by taking care of themselves, amid growing discontent. No one knows how it will end, but with the quick burials and no sign that the government is going to listen to scientific advice, Nicaragua may have already lost its fight against the pandemic under its alternative reality.