By John Perry
[John Perry is based in Masaya, Nicaragua, and writes for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, London Review of Books, FAIR and other outlets.]
(This article was first published on the UnHerd webpage at: https://unherd.com/2022/11/nicaraguas-inconvenient-covid-victory/)In Nicaragua, Latin America’s third poorest country, people who don’t work don’t eat. Three-quarters of jobs are in small businesses and farms or the informal economy. So, when its first Covid case was diagnosed on 18 March 2020, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega knew that shutting down the economy would be catastrophic.
He was under pressure from all sides to introduce strict restrictions. Among Nicaragua’s neighbours, El Salvador registered its first case on 18 March and imposed a lockdown two days later; Honduras did the same; Costa Rica imposed a lockdown on 16 March and three days later closed its borders completely. These neighbouring governments, all politically hostile towards Nicaragua, insisted that it join in closing the regional economy.
Within Nicaragua, vociferous opposition groups and media were also calling for the economy to be shut down. But the country had barely recovered from a violent confrontation in 2018 between these opposition groups and Ortega’s socialist Sandinista government, which had resulted in more than 200 deaths. A lockdown would only put further strain on the divided nation.
When Ortega declared publicly that there would be no lockdown, most Nicaraguans quietly accepted that while his decision might be risky, he had little choice. Inevitably, the Right-wing opposition accused him of being in denial about the pandemic. Worse still, they spread fear and suspicion with their predictions that the health service would collapse. An opposition thinktank projected 120,000 Covid cases by June; a local Right-wing media channel, 100% Noticias, topped that by saying that 23,000 Nicaraguans would be dead within a month. Once the government started producing Covid statistics, a rival “citizens’ observatory” was set up, which never declared its membership or source of funding. It began to produce weekly reports contesting the government’s figures (although the small print on its website reveals that its own statistics were based on social media reports and even “rumours”). Many Nicaraguans, including some I knew, were so scared of going to hospital when they developed Covid symptoms that they left it until too late.
This dishonest narrative soon spread abroad, where Nicaragua’s opposition figures enjoy good contacts with the international media. On 4 April, BBC World claimed that the Ortega government had taken “no measures at all” against the virus threat. It invented a media trope: Ortega’s “long absence” from public view. Two days later, the New York Times asked “Where Is Daniel Ortega?,” saying that his government had been “widely criticised for its cavalier approach”. The Guardian joined the chorus, claiming that Ortega was “nowhere to be seen,” adding four days later that the “authoritarian” Ortega was one of four world leaders in denial about the virus. The Washington Post said that Ortega had “vanished,” leaving a government operating a “laissez-faire approach” to the pandemic. On 6 April, The Lancet published a letter calling Nicaragua’s Covid response “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date”. By May, according to the New York Times, Nicaragua — “one of the last to reject the strict measures introduced globally” — had become a country of “midnight burials”.
The liberal media’s lies could not have been further from reality. Ortega’s government had prioritised health spending since he returned to power in 2007, raising it to 19% of the national budget by 2020, one of the highest levels in the world. Nicaragua was also one of the first nations in the region to set out its Covid strategy, issuing a joint protocol with the Pan-American Health Organisation (the Americas branch of the WHO) on 9 February. Its 36,000 health workers had received training on dealing with the virus before the first case arrived. One hospital was designated to deal solely with respiratory illnesses and 18 more were equipped with Covid isolation wards. Health “brigades” worked locally, eventually making five million house-to-house visits to educate people, identify possible Covid cases, and counteract misinformation. That’s about four visits per household on average.
So much for taking “no measures at all” against the virus. A “track and trace” system was in place and health checks were being made at border crossing points months before similar measures were taken in the UK or US. While tourism stopped and hotels and restaurants closed, many other businesses stayed open with precautions in place. Mask-wearing, never imposed by law, became almost universal. Private schools closed but public ones stayed open, with voluntary attendance, because many children rely on the free school meals served to every pupil.
What was the outcome? There was an intense peak of Covid cases and deaths between May and July 2020, but by August numbers were gradually falling, although they peaked again in mid-2021. My local hospital, one of the 19 equipped for Covid, was able to hold a small celebration in August 2020 for patients who had been discharged.
None of this early success dulled the criticism. The Lancet article praised the lockdown policies of El Salvador and Honduras. In the former, President Nayib Bukele forced people to self-isolate, offering a subsidy of $300 per family which caused massive, unregulated queues and then rowdy protests outside government offices. In some areas its lockdown was reportedly enforced by gangs with baseball bats. Meanwhile in Honduras, a “militarised quarantine” led to police violence, more than 1,000 arrests and the confiscation of almost 900 vehicles, according to human rights group COFADEH. Honduran schools stayed closed for two years. Yet both countries had higher reported infection levels than Nicaragua. So did Costa Rica, which sustained the fiercest barrage of criticism of its neighbour and for many weeks even prevented food transport between the two countries.
The international media didn’t question whether lockdowns were in Nicaragua’s best interests or whether they were even feasible. The truth only came out towards the end of the pandemic, when the World Health Organisation, The Economist and Amnesty International produced differing estimates of excess deaths related to Covid. All showed that, compared with the rest of Latin America (and indeed the UK and USA), Nicaragua had done relatively well. The WHO ranked its excess death level as 14th out of 19 countries in the region, better than all four of its immediate neighbours.
When it came to vaccines, Nicaragua was at first at a disadvantage as, unlike its neighbours, it received no early vaccine donations from the US or China. However, once supplies arrived via the World Health Organization’s COVAX mechanism it advanced rapidly. Its community-based health teams have ensured that 86% of the population is fully vaccinated, the highest rate in Central America, and 91% have had at least one dose. This was all achieved without the coercive vaccine mandates of many Western countries.
By refusing to lock down, President Ortega saved his country from economic disaster. Nicaragua’s economy has recovered swiftly from the pandemic, with GDP growing by more than 10% in 2021 and forecast to be 4% this year. The government resumed its investment programmes, and now has 24 hospitals built or nearing completion as well as investing in renewable energy, paving rural roads, remodelling schools, and achieving the highest level of electricity coverage in the region.
Latin America’s experience of Covid was hugely diverse: Brazil, Mexico and Peru were — like the UK and US — among the 20 countries with the highest levels of Covid-related deaths. By contrast, according to Our World in Data, Nicaragua had one of the lowest death rates per 100,000 population in the world — 189, compared with 276 for the UK and 374 for the US. But the international media have done nothing to redress the unbalanced reporting of the early months of the pandemic. To date, no one has asked why Nicaragua’s performance was better and what might be learned from its experience. It would be worth finding out before the next pandemic.
By Nan McCurdy
IMF Recognizes Success of Nicaraguan Economy
A team from the International Monetary Fund, led by Alina Carare, held virtual discussions on November 3-4 and visited Managua from November 7-15 for Nicaragua’s 2022 Article IV Consultation. [Under Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement, the IMF holds bilateral discussions with member countries, usually every year. A staff team visits the country, collects economic and financial information, and discusses with officials the country’s economic developments and policies.] Carare met with Finance Minister Iván Acosta, Central Bank President Ovidio Reyes, other senior officials and representatives of the private sector, banks and the international community. She concluded by acknowledging that Nicaragua’s economy is growing strongly, projecting a 4% increase in Gross Domestic Product in 2022 and predicting that the country would maintain a conservative 3% growth by 2023, better than other Central American nations. The IMF has noted that “economic activity is recovering well, supported by appropriate macroeconomic and financial policies and substantial pre-crisis buffers of government deposits and international reserves” and that with financial assistance the Sandinista government has been able to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and reconstruction efforts after hurricanes ETA and IOTA.
The IMF highlighted that the real GDP grew by 10.3% in 2021. Large Foreign Direct Investment projects, strong remittances, and the allocation of Special Drawing Rights in August 2021 allowed for the continued accumulation of gross international reserves of about US$4.2 billion at the end of September 2022, according to the IMF The IMF stated that “Nicaragua’s economic outlook is favorable” but, because of what it called “global headwinds,” the country’s GDP growth is expected to moderate to 3% in 2023. The IMF report adds that, “over the medium term, real GDP growth is projected to converge to its potential of around 3½ %, given the cautious recovery of investment and credit to the private sector, and lower labor force participation.” The IMF notes that the fiscal policy stance for 2023 is appropriate and consistent with the Nicaraguan authorities’ commitment to safeguarding fiscal sustainability. (Informe Pastran, 17 Nov. 2022)
More Food for Families with Schoolchildren in Areas Affected by Hurricane
The National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention (SINAPRED) announced that 975 metric tons of food donated by the World Food Program was sent to reinforce the School Lunch Program in the 12 municipalities most affected by Hurricane Julia last month. The WFP Representative in Nicaragua Georgia Testolín stated that “the donation will be divided into packages of 39 pounds each and will be delivered to families that have children enrolled in the schools, as reinforcement to the local supply of the School Lunch Program that the Nicaragua Government is implementing throughout the country.” (Nicaragua News, 17 Nov. 2022)
165th Women’s Police Station to Deal with Violence Against Women
The National Police inaugurated a Police Station for Women and Children in the community of El Naranjo, municipality of Waslala, in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region, where it will provide service to some 4,000 women. The office is named after Angelina Díaz Aguilar, one of the legendary and historic women of Cuá, who passed away on July 4, 2020. The office will be staffed by personnel trained to work with women who suffer violence. (Radio La Primerisima, 17 Nov. 2022)
Nicaragua to Modernize its Airports
The head of the Russian air transport agency (Rosaviatsia), Alexandr Neradko, and the Nicaraguan Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, Óscar Mojica Obregón, continue collaborating in civil aviation, in particular, in the modernization of Nicaraguan airports, Rosaviatsia reported. “As a result of the meeting, the parties agreed to continue joint work aimed at developing cooperation between Russia and Nicaragua in civil aviation,” the statement said. Mojica Obregon communicated plans to start modernization of several airports. The airports are to be used for passenger and cargo transportation. (Radio La Primerisima, 21 Nov. 2022)
Nicaragua with Best Fiscal Surplus in Central America
Last week, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published the “Economic study of Central America and the Dominican Republic in 2022 and prospects for 2023.” The report states that with a fiscal surplus of 5.3% during the first trimester of 2022, Nicaragua is the country in the Central American Region with the highest fiscal surplus followed by Honduras (2.2%) and Guatemala (0.7%). (Nicaragua News, 21 Nov. 2022)
Electricity Comes to Village in Municipality of Siuna
In the Micaela community, Siuna Municipality, North Caribbean, 110 families will for the first time have electric energy in their homes, thanks to the government’s delivery of solar panels to the community. The project will transform a community from darkness to another way of life in the countryside; women especially will appreciate having energy in their homes and businesses. Community leader Leonel Cruz emphasized that these projects benefit the poor, middle and working classes. He added that these communities were abandoned for a long time and now only with the Sandinista Government have such projects arrived. “We have been dreaming about this for a long time, and now it is a reality, thanks to the government we have,” said resident Manuel Espinoza. See photos: HERE (Radio La Primerisima, 17 Nov. 2022)
Bonus for High School Graduates
The government is once again giving a graduation bonus to more than 63,000 high school graduates as recognition of their efforts. The bonus is a recognition to the high school graduates and their parents and a help for the students to get ahead and continue their academic life. See photos: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/gobierno-inicia-entrega-del-bono-complementario-a-bachilleres/ (Radio La Primerisima, 22 Nov. 2022)
Increase in Spending by Foreign Tourists
On Nov. 14 the Nicaragua Institute for Development Information published the Tourism Index Report for the third quarter of 2022. The report states that tourists spent an average of US$43.50 per person per day between the months of July and September this year, a 4.3% increase over the same period in 2021. Tourists from North America had the highest daily per capita expenditure with US$65, followed by South America (US$45); Europe (US$41.2); Central America (US$28.9). (Nicaragua News, 18 Nov. 2022)
Reform of the Mining Law
Artisanal gold mining activity in Nicaragua generates about US$100 million per year according to Minister of Energy and Mines Salvador Mansell and recent changes to the law will better help to regulate the country’s mining resources. The implementation of the reforms is expected to result in a safer work for artisanal miners and better supervision of mining concessions. Currently the largest gold mines are in La Libertad, Chontales; the towns of the Mining Triangle (Bonanza, Rosita, and Siuna); and El Limón. The amended law will educate artisanal miners and better regulate the extraction of gold from the tailings of the large mines. The goal is to eliminate mercury which is used by artisanal miners to extract the precious metal from the tailings. (Radio La Primerisima, 1 Sept. 2022; Tortilla con Sal, 2 Sept. 2022)