October 7, 2020
by Garance Robert, PhD student in Political Science at the University of Montreal (CERIUM, CPDS, CRC Participation et citoyenneté, ERIGAL), Coordinator of the Chair CERI-CERIUM affiliated with CEMCA
By mid-September 2020, Guatemala had over 80 000 coronavirus cases and over 3 000 deaths, with a strong concentration of cases around the capital, Ciudad Guatemala, as well as the city of Antigua, the two regions with the highest population density in the country.
At the beginning of March, the government of president Alejandro Giamattei, elected on August 2019 and took office in January, seemed to quickly react to the health threat by putting in place a "State of Calamity" on March 9. The official announcement of the first Covid-19 case took place a few days later on March 13. Hefty restrictions were then adopted and, on March 23rd, the government declared a curfew on the whole country, from 4pm to 4am, as well as a quasi total ban on traveling from one Department to another. The measures, initially put in place for one week, were maintained in the end until the end of July, with different phases of being tougher or more relaxed. Since August, the country has been progressively restarting its economic activities, its public services - in particular transportation - and is attempting to return to a sort of "normal" state, despite still being in a State of Calamity and the upholding of a number of constraints. The population's approval of the government's actions is consistently dropping, with less than 40% popularity compared to over 80% last April.
As in many countries throughout the world and especially in the Americas - including in those considered "developped" - the Covid-19 pandemic in Guatemala first blatantly exposed the deep flaws in the public health system. In the first phase, most of the country's hospitals had a serious shortage of equipment, especially an absence of protective gear (masks, visors and lab coats) and inventories in poor condition or expired, for example at the beginning of the crisis some of the masks that were distributed had mold. So the risk of exposure to health workers was increased, and the number of deaths among those professionals is now the highest in all of Central America, with unfortunately at least 82 doctors die from Covid-19 by September 8, 2020. Furthermore, many reported getting paid late (up to three months), as well as second-rate food being given to them and the sick (there again, mold was found in some prepared dishes).
Also denounced was the lack of means to treat the patients, who were only given paracetamol. Recurring problems from being understaffed added to the difficulties, forcing the health workers to work countless extra hours when they already had demanding jobs in terms of consecutive hours as well as physical and psychological fatigue. Though the situation seemed to have stabilized by July, there were several protest movements in April, May and June against the government by the medical personnel, and the rallies have started again more forcefully since September. This was the case for example of the Parque de la Industría in the center of the capital (where a temporary hospital reserved for "Covid patients" and with little means was installed) and also the August 6 protest that ended with the temporary occupation of the Ministry of Health. Several requests were sent to the government by different groups (ad-hoc groups of doctors, the Colegio de Farmacéuticos y Químicos de Guatemala and the worker's union of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security) that went unheeded. Finally, several complaints were dropped off at the office of the Human Rights Prosecutor who agreed to formally investigate the government's management of the pandemic. In fact, the Minister of Health Hugo Monroy was dismissed at the end of June, heavily criticized for his lack of transparency with respect to his handling of the health crisis. Having come from the private sector, his lack of experience in the health domain, his inability to manage the crisis and accusations of corruption that are weighing on him fuel strong suspicions of nepotism, which would explain his nomination.
Even more than the disease itself, the lockdown measures reinforced the gap in social and gender inequalities. As in the rest of the world, Guatemalan women have indeed particularly suffered from the effects of the pandemic and the constraints that came with it. Violence and rape surged because of the confinement, and the domestic workload greatly increased. The rift also grew between social categories, middle class and uppper class on the one hand - who were able to suspend their professional activities in order to isolate themselves, or work remotely - and on the other hand the rest of the population who depends on daily wages which must be earned outside of the home. In a country where the informal economy represents a significant part of the total economy (estimated at about 30% of the GDP), being able to confine oneself therefore seems to have more to do with luxury than norm. On the first week after quarantine measures were put in place, several poor urban areas and some rural ones were already seeing food shortages. The enactment of a curfew also showed that the military might in Guatemalans' political and daily life was far from a thing of the past since they were heavily used during the whole period the curfew was imposed. In some municipalities (El Estor, Morales and Livington in the Department of Izabal; Panzós and Santa Catarina la Tinta, in the Alta Verapaz region), the "State of Calamity" since July goes with a "Martial Law" implementation, under the guise of fighting against drug trafficking, while many local organizations denounce the necessity of this decision. This leads to worrying about a militarization of those regions, typically mostly populated by indigenous peoples and where social and political struggles tied to extractivism is particulary active.
Indigenous populations represent a large portion of the total population in Guatemala, although the deficiencies in the census do not give an exact picture of the actual number. And yet, the government did not implement any specific strategy in terms of prevention or treatment of Covid-19 for the people living in the furthest communities. In those territories, the vectors of the spread of the virus are mainly people having traveled out of the country in hopes of providing for their families, but who were thrown out and are returning to Guatemala. As an example, on April 14, close to 75% of the deported passagers on the charter flight coming from the United States tested positive to the coronavirus. Though the influx of remesas is, against all hopes, far from slowing down, it will be difficult for the Guatemalans living overseas, and especially in the United States, to maintain that level long-term.
Furthermore, the emergency measures put in place by the government were imposed unilateraly in the whole country, notibly in rural zones. There were no initial consultations with the communities - whether they be mestizas or indigenous - the inhabitants' social and economic dynamics and practices were not taken into account and there was no support for the local organization of these groups. Il was often forbidden to go out to work, which led to a loss of employment and regular wages for many families. The hours of the country and popular markets - despite typically being outside - were limited, while the supermarkets operated as usual. Some communities in rural environments are particularly suffering from malnutrition, especially those located in the "dry corridor" - there again predominantly indigenous. Finally, the crisis adds to an already fragile health situation due to many diseases that are transmitted by mosquitoes during the humid season.
Though job opportunities for agricultural workers were drastically reduced because of the restrictions on travel, large companies on the other hand were not told to stop their activities. The mining extraction projects, the construction of hydroelectric plants and the installation of high tension electrical towers, production of monocultures of palm oil and sugarcane, as well as the building sites situated in the Interoceanic Corridor, continued to operate at full capacity. Some of these companies do not have valid operating or extraction permits, even being pursued legally as is the case of the nickel mine CGN Pronico located at El Estor, Izabal. The various actions of those defending people's rights have often effectively been blocked because of travel restrictions, while intimidation, threats and coercion against leaders, indigenous and community authorities, and also against several rural organizations, social militants and even journalists, have increased. Though the government put a dozen aid programs in place, their implementation leaves a lot to be desired. For example, the Bono Familia, originally meant for the most vulnerable families and which should have benefited over 2.5 million households, was strongly criticized. The lack of communication and clear information concerning the conditions and the procedures to follow would have prevented a large number of individuals from initiating the request. Also, the procedures necessitated having digital options (phone or internet), when the most vulnerable people are the ones who are the most affected by the digital divisions.
Despite overall negative results, the Covid-19 crisis has nevertheless shown that different groups, impacted by the crisis and by the often repressive and unilateral government responses, are far from unresponsive to the situation. Some groups have shown strong resilience and solid organizational capabilities, starting with the members of indigenous communities. The solidarity initiatives and the new types of aid have indeed been reinforced, such as for example the collection of food to help families and communities in quarantine, group self-control so the pandemic does not infect the residents of villages, and also the role some local authorities took on who implemented specific measures to take care of the population's life and health.
In this way, the pandemic has often bolstered an awareness of the importance of local involvement, of independent management of information, of coming back to traditional methods of preserving community health, as well as food self-sufficiency. The leaders' actions were closely documented, analyzed and often openly criticized in the media, although some of the journalists paid the price for it. The public media (press, information sites, radios...) continued incessantly to report on the evolution of events in the remotest territories. Finally, emergency aid initiatives were created to compensate for the shortage of food. For example, in the historic center of Ciudad Guatemala, the organization "la olla communitaria" (the community pot) distributed over 100 000 meals since April 7, over the course of 200 consecutive days. They were emulated in several cities in the country, from Antigua to Cobán and Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa. However, it has ended its activities since the economic reopening has decreased the availability of volunteers, but its members call to mind that the hunger problem is far from being resolved in the country.
Ultimately, and looking at the events of these last months, the crisis has shown, if not accentuated, both the weaknesses of its institutions and the lack of transparency and effectiveness of the country's federal government management. Authoritarianism and the arbitrary nature of some of the measures in no way managed to slow down the epidemic long term, which is contrary to what we've read at times, in particular concerning China, on the advantages of authoritarian situations to slow the spread of infection. In contrast to this, the energy of a number of "civil society" groups seems all the more important: professional associations such as unions and health professional committees; organized communities that not only criticize the management and the measures put in place and demand federal aid, but also organize themselves to find solutions for these shortcomings; and even emergency civic solidarity initiatives. Though they bring to light the failures of the government, these attitudes also come together in that they claim rights - to health, to information, to a minimum standard of living, to participation, to an equitable treatment of all citizens... - whether they be political, economic or social.
Finally, the pandemic situation reveals the wider and wider circulation of the idea of "the right to have rights". For all that, even when these people are quite capable of exercising their rights, the Guatemalan government and its leaders are unable on their end to guarantee them, whether because of a kind of structural weakness or because of a lack of political will.
Garance Robert is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Montreal (CERIUM, CPDS, CRC Participation et citoyenneté, ERIGAL), Coordinator of the Chair CERI-CERIUM affiliated with CEMCA.