One year ago, on March 18, 2020, the Ministry of Health (Minsa) confirmed the first positive case of Coronavirus in Nicaragua. The patient was a Nicaraguan who had recently arrived from Panama. That should have served as a warning.
However, instead of implementing the preventive measures recommended by the World Health Organization, the Ortega-Murillo regime moved in a different direction. They began carrying out a policy of denial and negligence that fostered the spread of the pandemic. Their reaction can be summed up with six actions.
First: The country’s highest officials minimized the seriousness of the pandemic’s danger and the risk to the country’s health workers. They initially mocked the COVID-19 threat, as evidenced by a dance tune launched by one of the state television channels. It was called, “The cumbia of the imported virus”.
Two: They reinforced the existing censorship and totally closed off access to public information. All COVID-19 testing was centralized in the Health Ministry’s laboratories, leaving the country completely blind. One year later, Nicaragua deserves a world record for never issuing a report on tests. They’ve never published any information on the number of COVID-19 tests processed by Minsa, or the percentage of positive results.
Three: In a serious violation of professional ethics, Minsa forbade doctors working in the hospitals to register admissions as COVID-19 patients. The doctors were told to attribute their symptoms to other diseases. Shortly afterwards, dozens of doctors and specialists with decades of experience were fired from the public hospitals. Why? For challenging this prohibition and trying to inform and promote protective measures for health workers.
Four: Along with this deliberate policy of negligence, Vice President Rosario Murillo called for a mass march. She ordered FSLN party members and state workers to participate. They marched under the banner: “Love in the times of COVID-19”. This was the kick-off for a series of political activities, fairs, parties, sports competitions and every conceivable kind of crowd event. Participants attended with no protective measures. Similar activities continue today.
Five: The regime refused the offers of civil society, the churches and the private sector to coordinate actions for preventing contagion. They refused to promote public policies of physical distancing or any kind of assistance for those affected. Daniel Ortega, in one of his few public appearances, explained that the objective was to keep “the economy open”. In other words, to avoid any additional reduction in economic activity, now in the third consecutive year of recession. Such contraction would mean fewer taxes collected, and the regime depends on taxes to cover the payroll for the state and the police.
Six: The regime whose April 2018 killings provoked the socio-political crisis and the economic recession, tightened their grip on power. They did so during the worst public health crisis in our history, with utter scorn for the population’s lives.
At the height of the COVID surge here, dozens of people were dying daily and the “express burials” were multiplying. But the only thing that Ortega was concerned about was maintaining control over the economic resources. He needed these to finance the repression and the police state.
Human lives were never important to them, not even those of their own party members. The regime remained focused only on maintaining power, even though hundreds of prominent Sandinistas died. Among the dead were ministers, presidential advisors, embassy staff members, army and police officials, FSLN deputies, mayors and political secretaries.
Due to the government’s denial and negligence, the unchecked spread of COVID-19 in Nicaragua produced a true humanitarian tragedy. A calamity the regime has tried to hide. The Ministry of Health claims that only 176 people died from COVID-19. If that were true, we’d be the wonder of Central America, with one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. Unfortunately, neither the Pan American Health Organization nor the World Health Organization have endorsed the official lie. Although they apparently accepted the government policies at the onset of the pandemic, they haven’t accepted their statistics.
The Citizens Observatory is an independent monitoring group that collects reports from independent doctors and patients’ families. They’ve documented 3,009 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the past year. That number is 17 times higher than the statistic offered by the Nicaraguan Health Ministry.
Another group, the Multi-disciplinary Scientific Committee, analyzed the excess mortality in the country this year. Using the official data from registered death certificates, they made some comparisons. They examined the death toll from pneumonia, heart attack, diabetes and high blood pressure during the first twelve months of the pandemic. They then compared those numbers to the historical averages for such deaths over the last five years.
Using this method, they came up with an excess mortality of 9,000 deaths. They could only attribute this large increase in mortality to COVID-19. Their figure is 51 times greater than the official toll.
Each one of these deaths is much more than a statistic. It represents a life story and a family’s grief. In addition, there are dozens of doctors and health workers who never should have died. These health workers would most likely still be alive if they’d been allowed to take appropriate protective measures.
In a functioning democracy, those promoting the policies that resulted in rampant contagion would be subject to investigation. In this case, the policies involved President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, plus three consecutive health ministers, Martha Reyes, Sonia Castro, y Carolina Davila. Also bearing responsibility is Gustavo Porras, the head of the National Assembly. All of these figures merit investigation, to determine their level of responsibility for the resulting public health disaster.
Nevertheless, under the Ortega dictatorship, achieving accountability for public officials within the State-Party-Family system isn’t possible. Only in a democracy, after the dictatorship departs, could the truth be established.
The country will need a Truth Commission and a Special Prosecutor’s Office. These will not only be needed to investigate crimes against humanity and acts of public corruption. They’ll also need to take on the COVID-19 tragedy, one that was aggravated by official negligence during the pandemic.
But to achieve democracy, the political opposition must first create a unified electoral ticket for November 7th. If they fail, we’ll have another five years of dictatorship.
Meanwhile, the least we journalists can do is to keep the historical memory alive. We must continue documenting the stories of the victims of the repression and of COVID-19. These victims demand to be remembered. They must never be forgotten.