June 15, 2020
by Maya Collombon, Professor at Sciences-Po Lyon (Triangle Laboratory). She is a representative of the South-East office of the Institut des Amériques.
With a multitude of lockdown periods put in place to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, Nicaragua proves to be the exception.
It is one of the rare countries that hasn't put any measures in place against the coronavirus. For the government, faith is there: just a month ago the President of the Republic, Daniel Ortega, announced that Covid-19 was under control. Yet last week, and for the first time since the beginning of the international health crisis, the Health Minister (Minsa) announced more worrisome numbers in his last epidemiological report: a significant increase (over 30%) in cases (now at 1118) and a total of 46 deaths by June 2, 2020. But, according to the national experts of the Covid-19 citizen observatory, the numbers are way below reality, calculating at least 800 deaths due to Covid-19 (against 686 in all of Central America), worrisome especially for neighboring Central American countries and over 3725 cases of contamination, including 348 among healthcare professionals.
On the other hand, the Pan American Health Organization (OPS) is worried that the lack of prevention measures and lack of respect of measures recommended by the WHO have put Nicaragua in stage 4 of the community transmission of the disease.
AUTHORITIES THAT ARE FAILING...
Despite continued warnings at the international level, no containment measures against the epidemic, or protective measures for healthcare professionals, have been put in place until now . Going against the WHO's recommendations, schools were not closed, even though there was an important decrease of children in the classrooms. The economy has continued almost "normally", while it is recommended that stores remain open to avoid the negative impact on a national economy already in bad shape.
Furthermore, the Ortega administration has not limited public events. On the contrary, he has organized some. So, on March 16, the government called for a "Amor en tiempos del Covid-19" (Love during Covid-19) in order to "fight" the epidemic, to which were convened, willingly or unwillingly, the employees of the federal offices and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, left-wing party in power to which President Ortega belongs to). This walk led to a series of other public events that multiplied after the mid-March period, gathering an increasing number of Nicaraguans: tourist, sports, cultural, recreational and religious activities encouraged by the government.
Two months later, the health crisis has become serious and the healthcare system is saturated. Public hospitals are overwhelmed. In a country where 30% of the population lives under the poverty level, only a privileged few from large cities can access health clinics that provide quality care, with the right equipment, but that are private and very expensive. Rather, there are long waiting lines in front of public hospitals where visitors and sick people mingle with no physical distancing measures. The pharmacies find themselves out of stock, unable to distribute masks, disinfectant, nor even in some cases basic medication. In the public hospitals, the healthcare professionals work without protection. With this two-way healthcare system that only benefits the rich, in the second poorest country on the American continent, the pandemic has essentially become a poor people's issue.
THE ART OF HIDING THE TRUTH
The terrible conditions of this health crisis were made possible by the lack of action of the government authorities. It rests on complete control (most of the country's TV and radio channels belong to the presidential family) and a lack of transparency on the epidemic information. So it took several weeks for the media to show the extent of the pandemic and broadcast information of its progression at a national level. Meanwhile, whole sections of the country were totally uninformed of the health risks and continued to participate in public events organized by the FSLN. On the other hand, the WHO complained of the partial and quite irregular transmission of daily reports requested from the government on the disease's progression. In this context, it is impossible to have a clear and viable view of the situation.
Yet, the health crisis is definitely there. Funerals are on the rise, in "express" mode (done at night, wakes not being permitted), while hospitals declare, with no testing, an increase in deaths by pneumonia and heart attacks. Even deaths among the Sandinistas (from the FSLN party), which have increased these past two weeks, doesn't seem to make the government bend.
THE GOVERNMENT'S CRISIS OF LEGITIMACY MUCH OLDER THAN COVID-19
The criticisms on how the health crisis was managed were immediate and were shaped around two main areas: on one hand, the medical associations; on the other, the opposition to the Ortega administration that is active since the April 2018 political crisis. So, since the end of May, 34 Nicaraguan medical associations are calling for the start of an immediate voluntary national quarantine to limit the results of the spread of the epidemic. On their end, after numerous accusations of mishandling the crisis, the main organizations opposing the regime, Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, Blue and White National Unity and the April victims association, have rallied around the doctors' appeal. In response to the criticisms, national and international, the FSLN administration put together a white book at the end of May, in which it compares its approach to that of Sueden.
The Covid-19 pandemic is actually hiding a disease that has been poisoning Nicaragua long before the Spring 2020 health crisis. Indeed, it is only revealing the Ortega administration's increasing authoritarianism. In April 2018, the country found itself in the biggest political crisis since the 1979 revolution that had, as a matter of fact, put the Sandinistas in power. They had, having been in power during the 1980s, lost during the 1990 elections. Sixteen years later, Daniel Ortega, one of the nine members of the revolutionary national directorate returns to power during a new election. He will be reelected in 2011, then in 2016, meanwhile with no limit to the number of terms (because of a change in the Constitution). But after 12 years of an increasing authoritarian regime, huge protests in the Spring of 2018 demanded his departure from power. The protest is violently suppressed, leading to 400 deaths (according to the data from the national organizations of human rights). Then it's the start of a period of systematic repression and intimidation against all forms of disagreement.
For the 2018 protestors, who organized themselves into opposing groups, resistance has gone underground. Faced with Covid-19, it is still on-going in the dark. So, it's behind the governement's back that the young people from the April 19 University Movement began a distribution campaign of anti-covid kits (close to 3000 kits have been distributed that ncludes a reusable mask, a bottle of disinfectant and liquid soap) in the poorest sections of the capital. Proof of the government's obsession in repressing these groups, despite the pandemic, wearing a mask in the street in Nicaragua today can lead to retaliation from the national police.
Maya Collombon est a Professor at Sciences-Po Lyon and heads the program Diplôme d’établissement sur l’Amérique latine et les Caraïbes (DEALC). She is a member of the Triangle laboratory (UMR 5206) and a representative of the Institut des Amériques' South-East office. A specialist in Political Science, her research is focused on the changes in development policies that are put in place in racialized social contexts in Mexico and Central America at the start of the 2000s and on transnational mobilizations, particularly of indigenous activists, that came about. This study brought her to question the Zapatista activism through activist careers and the politicizing in a rural environment. She worked on authoritarianism by questionning the hegemonic forms of power of Daniel Ortega's last two terms in Nicaragua by studying the changes in the voting measures, by analyzing the relationship between the government and its indigenous populations, and by using an ethnographic approach. She is co-PI with Lilian Mathieu (Max Weber Center) of the ANR CALOT project on the consequences of forced loyalty in authoritarian situations.