The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting Nicaragua at a time when it’s a de facto police state and in its third year of economic recession, after the crisis resulting from the Ortega regime’s repression of the April 2018 rebellion. It’s also occurring during an extended period of absence on the part of Daniel Ortega, who this time has gone 24 days without appearing or speaking in public, even though over fifteen days ago the first positive case of the novel Coronavirus was confirmed in Nicaragua.
Ortega’s absence is a manifestation of the lack of “leadership” and “there’ll be a bill to pay” with the emergency, stated Juan Sebastian Chamorro, executive director of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy.
Ortega didn’t even appear on Friday in the posthumous homage offered to deceased deputy Jacinto Suarez, Ortega’s cellmate during the Somoza dictatorship.
“This absence is more notable (because of the pandemic). For those who follow him, that absence of “leadership is truly regrettable,” commented Chamorro during an interview on the internet news program Esta Semana, which is transmitted via YouTube and Facebook Live, due to the television censorship that the regime imposed in January 2019.
While the presidents of other countries are heading up the emergency response, together with specialized medical personnel, “what we’re seeing here is a total absence, and rather strange messages,” criticized Chamorro, after remarking on the destitution of the former Health Minister (Carolina Davila), and “the apparent resignation of the head of the Intensive Care Unit of the German-Nicaraguan Hospital.” In his view, these things “indicate that something is happening, and it’s serious.”
Response of the activist citizens
Chamorro highlighted that in the face of the vacuum in presidential authority, civil society, the Catholic Church, the business community and the National Coalition have adopted their own preventive measures against the pandemic. The novel Coronavirus has now infected over 1.3 million people all over the world, and caused over 76,000 deaths, while some 282,000 have recovered.
“There’s been no [emergency] decree here from the official point of view, but there’s been a people’s decree: citizens are responding to the call of the different organizations. Very early on, the Episcopal Conference issued important statements about what to do. What’s being seen is a self-organized movement for protection from the pandemic,” he stated.
Chamorro emphasized the Civic Alliance’s commitment to preventive actions in the face of the pandemic, and the outreach of their member organizations, such as Nicaraguan Medical Unity and the student movements, to inform and alert the population engaged in a self-declared quarantine.
The regime’s lack of response has also caused at least two Central American presidents – Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Carlos Alvarado of Costa Rica – to express their concern for the Ortega government’s negligence in the face of the novel Coronavirus. In addition to not adopting the measures internationally recommended, the regime insists on promoting large gatherings and mass activities.
“Everything sets Nicaragua completely apart from the rest of the Central America countries. This negligence is visible, people are noticing, the population is waiting for the state to respond to the need for information,” Chamorro declared.
Covid-19 under an authoritarian regime
The Central American Institute for Business Administration (Incae) published a message to the nation last March 31, urging that the government and all the social figures of importance, including the Church and the communities, “to work together and in a coordinated way to prepare for confronting this mortal virus,” arguing that “in this moment, we need to think about saving lives and put to one side differences of any kind.”
Up until now, the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has ignored the Incae petition. Nonetheless, the Executive Director of the Civic Alliance feels that there’s no room for a truce with the regime.
Two years after the social explosion that was brutally repressed by the dictatorship, at least 328 murders remain uninvestigated and unpunished. There are still some 70 Nicaraguans who are political prisoners, and there are more than 100,000 Nicaraguans in exile due to the political persecution. At least 30 people who opposed the regime have been killed in the rural areas of Nicaragua.
“First, they have to reestablish the public freedoms; and then, if they want all the active forces to concur, then there must be a consensus to put into effect everything the WHO is recommending – to suspend classes, close the borders, and establish a quarantine.”
“Under no circumstances can the Civic Alliance subscribe to the concept of a truce,” maintained Chamorro.
Protection for the Health Workers
In their call to the population, Incae also asked for the coordination of public and private actions in the face of the Covid-19 emergency. This proposal has been backed by the private sector, but the government has failed to respond to it.
“In Nicaragua, the virus is just beginning to propagate, so that the nation still has time to take the necessary measures,” alerted the Incae communique. It then suggested prioritizing “the strengthening of the capacity and security of the national health system and their professionals,” giving them the essential gear and instruments “to work during the pandemic, protect the most vulnerable, assure the supply of key inputs to fulfill the basic needs of the population, and so to contribute to reducing the global impact of Covid-19 on the economy, employment and poverty.”
Chamorro emphasized that it’s important to have the “concurrence” of all sectors of society to confront the pandemic, because it’s a problem that goes beyond the capabilities of one or another organization alone, even the State.
“The private sector made a very important decision when they said that they could put in their resources. The formation of a fund to attend to the emergency is important, because it will be utilized to be able to purchase protective equipment for people on the front lines. I’m speaking of the health professionals in both the private and the public sector.”
Massive testing urged
Chamorro added that among the fundamental items for the emergency is the need to carry out massive testing.
The regime has centralized the realization of Covid-19 tests in the “Conchita Palacios” Health Complex administered by the Health Ministry. It continues to withhold information on the number of tests that have been done to date. In addition, health workers in the public hospitals of the country have denounced to Confidencial that the regime has forbid them to use the minimal measures of protection to prevent contagion (such as masks, gloves and gel alcohol) under the argument of “not alarming” the population.
Chamorro insisted that at least 100,000 tests should be conducted all over the country to detect where the infectious hot spots are, reduce the uncertainty and help eliminate that policy of secrecy that the regime maintains. Basically, they’ve merely informed people that they should wash their hands and go to the closest hospital or health center if they have symptoms.
Last Thursday, the president of the National Assembly Gustavo Porras, formerly a labor leader with the Federation of Health Workers and currently under sanctions imposed by the United States and Canada, justified the regime’s negligence by declaring that he doesn’t see the need to “make a big fuss” over “sporadic cases” of Covid-19 in Nicaragua.
Chamorro feels that it’s better to put people on alert and make sure they’re fully informed about the pandemic, than to sin by omission.
“That’s exactly what happened in places where the pandemic could have been contained but where it went out of control. In South Korea, a country of 51 million inhabitants, there were 10,000 infected and 177 deaths. And why? Because they did massive testing. In Ecuador, they were poking around like a blind person with a cane, and we’re seeing the consequences. We still have time, but all of the recommendations must be taken seriously,” he advised.
Funds for the regime
The government has advocated in the United Nations for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the governments of the US and Canada due to the regime’s repression and human rights’ violations in Nicaragua. Their argument is that they need to obtain access to international resources for the emergency.
Nonetheless, Chamorro noted that the sanctions were imposed against the regime functionaries for their involvement in human rights violations, crimes and electoral fraud, and explained that from the opposition camp they’ve never advocated for the suspension of resources needed for basic necessities, much less under circumstances of a national pandemic emergency.
“Resources are needed for all this, and I believe that it’s important for the international community, the private sector and all of those who can help to join this chain of solidarity. This chain of solidarity consists in finding financial and physical resources like equipment, protective materials for the battle that’s coming,” Chamorro declared.
However, he also warned of the need to reinforce the accountability and transparency mechanisms of the international organizations to counteract the government’s opaque public administration.
The impact on the national economy
All the front pages of the international and national media have been absorbed by the Covid-19 advance in the last months. Although there’s been talk of prevention and the actions that should be taken to save lives, it’s an undeniable fact that the pandemic has had a huge impact on the world economy.
The estimate of the economic impact on a world level, according to Chamorro, is a 3 percent contraction; in the case of Nicaragua, growth previously was at -1. So, a drop of -5 is now estimated, since some 80% of the Nicaraguan economy depends on the United States. That is, it depends in large measure on imports and family remittances, and these are going to suffer greatly.
“In order for us to have a vision of the magnitude of the crisis on a global level, during the 2009 crisis, there were 900,000 people left unemployed in the United States. Today, three million jobs have been lost. This is naturally going to have repercussions in the Nicaraguan economy that in addition came into this pandemic in an extremely vulnerable situation,” Chamorro reiterated.
Those vulnerable situations he refers to are the reduction in the taxes collected; the situation of Social Security with a deficit of over US $120 million; and the fiscal capacity of the State, that will be seriously reduced with this crisis.
“Some companies in Nicaragua in the last two weeks have sent over 50,000 workers on vacation. Also,” he added, “there are free trade zones that are closed, and if all of them close it will mean greater unemployment and poverty.” Chamorro indicated that this time there’s so escape valve for the citizens, since as a result of the borders closing, they can’t emigrate to find work.
In addition to the Assistance Fund being promoted by the private sector, he challenged the government to adopt measures for social protection for those most affected by the unemployment and poverty, and insisted that this crisis must be met with a commitment for actions of “solidarity”.