NicaNotes: Covid-19: On the Decline in Nicaragua as its Critics Fall Silent

By John Perry

No country can yet claim to have defeated Covid-19, but clearly some are having more success than others. Nicaragua is one of these, and could yet be recognized as a world leader. With under 5,000 Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, according to official figures, its infection level is far below that of Panama (105,000), Guatemala (85,000), Honduras (71,000), Costa Rica (63,000) or El Salvador (27,000). Of course, it is certain that Nicaragua’s figure, like those of the other countries, undercounts the real incidence of the virus. But even the so-called ‘independent’ Citizens Observatory, which is closely linked to Nicaraguan opposition political groups, only reports around 10,000 cases – still well below the incidence in adjoining countries. And the observatory’s figures – as its website makes clear – are not based on testing but on unverifiable sources, including ‘rumors’ (which it defines as ‘spontaneous public opinions’).

What evidence is there that Nicaragua’s epidemic is under control? Over the past six weeks, since early August, there have been only around a thousand new cases. The weekly level of new cases is down to 143 (mid-September) from a peak of 480 per week at the end of May. This reflects experience on the ground – hospitals are now dealing with a limited number of Covid-19 cases, and the Managua hospital that was dedicated solely to treating the virus, the Alemán Nicaragüense, has opened its doors to other patients. In the streets, while people still take precautions and most wear masks, there is little sense that the pandemic is everyone’s biggest worry, as it was four months ago.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reports that Nicaragua has the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the Americas. Also, according to Forbes, at the end of August Nicaragua had the best Covid-19 recovery rate in the region (see chart), with more than 90 per cent of patients recovered. These are encouraging figures, although truly comparable data will only be available when national mortality data can be examined for the different countries over the period of the pandemic.

Nicaraguan government policies have differed sharply from those of its neighbors. Nicaragua prepared early – equipping 19 hospitals to handle severe respiratory illnesses, training all 36,000 health staff in dealing with the virus, maintaining strict health checks at borders with supervised quarantine for new arrivals, making house-to-house visits with volunteer health brigades dispensing advice (some five million visits in total), tracing the contacts of the vast majority of known cases, and setting up a free telephone helpline to advise people with symptoms.

 

What it didn’t do was impose a lockdown, arguing that suffering would be much greater if it did, as the many Nicaraguans who need to work to eat each day wouldn’t have been able to do so. The peak of the pandemic coincided with the planting season: how would the 40 per cent of Nicaraguans in rural areas have survived without new crops? In contrast, the adjoining countries imposed strict lockdowns, provoking demonstrations and causing extreme hardship, dealing with violations by tough fines or even by violent repression (bread sellers in Honduras were shot by police for breaking the lockdown; one died). All of these countries have since been forced to relax their restrictions in part because of the considerable damage caused to people’s livelihoods, even as numbers of cases have continued to grow.

 

What has happened in Nicaragua is not what was supposed to happen, according to opposition media and the international press. Early on, exaggerated figures from the Citizen’s Observatory were given more credibility by international media than the government’s own figures. For example, when on May 26 the health ministry, MINSA, reported 759 proven cases of COVID-19, the observatory was reporting over 2,600 cases with a further 2,000 as ‘suspicious’, none of them based on testing.

 

Right-wing NGOs and media channels produced forecasts that were clearly intended to scare people, and regrettably a proportion of Nicaraguans did believe them. For example, a report by the notorious media channel 100% Noticias on April 2 predicted that 23,000 Nicaraguans would die from the virus by early May (in fact by early May there were just six deaths). The BBC carried a report which included a forecast by a local NGO called FUNIDES that by June there would be at least 120,000 virus cases and 650 deaths. In the same report the BBC cast doubt on the Nicaraguan government figures, but it reproduced the obviously exaggerated FUNIDES prediction without questioning it. FUNIDES does not work in the health sector and in 2018 it received over US$120,000 from the US-government supported agency the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote ‘democracy’ in Nicaragua and $US253,245 from USAID. These and other rumors and predictions have been collated in a video by Juventud Presidente, Falsas matemáticas sobre el Covid-19 en Nicaragua.

 

There have also been numerous articles criticizing the Nicaraguan government for its supposed inaction in the face of Covid-19. One of the most influential appeared in the international medical journal, The Lancet. A letter from 13 health professionals, all based in the USA (except for one in Costa Rica), belittled the Nicaraguan government’s response to the epidemic as ‘careless’ and ‘perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date’. It drastically understated the availability of a crucial item of medical equipment – ventilators – because it relied for its information on one of the local opposition media, Confidencial.

 

Fortunately, the editors of The Lancet were happy to publish a response. This set out some of the steps the government had taken, challenging the original letter-writers to accept that they were wrong in calling Nicaragua’s approach ‘careless’, even if they didn’t agree with it. They then replied, but did not address most of the key points made in contesting their original arguments. They quoted the PAHO as criticizing Nicaragua – but while there was specific disagreement on the advisability of a national ‘lockdown’, the Nicaraguan government has been working closely with the Pan American Health Organization—PAHO (part of the World Health Organization) since a joint commission was established to confront the epidemic on January 30, when it was one of the first countries outside Asia to recognize the potential impact of the virus.

 

Not surprisingly, the international bodies that have constantly criticized the Nicaraguan government used the pandemic to renew their attacks. For example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a lengthy missive on May 29, concluded by expressing ‘their concern over the Nicaraguan population’s access to the right to health,’ apparently unaware that Nicaragua has far more free, public hospitals than neighboring Honduras (which has a 50% greater population), that 19 of these had been built since 2007 when the Sandinistas returned to power, and that Nicaragua spends a bigger proportion of its government budget on health than practically any other country in the Americas. The Inter-American Development Bank recently ranked Nicaragua second in Central America and fourth in all of Latin America in health investment.

 

Amnesty International, also quoting the Citizens Observatory figures, has used the pandemic to renew its criticisms of Daniel Ortega’s government, this time (in August) focusing on prison conditions. It continues to argue that there are 80 political prisoners in Nicaragua, despite the various amnesties that the government has held, and ignoring the fact that those who have been arrested in recent months (many of whom were previously amnestied in 2019) have committed serious crimes. Certainly the most egregious of these was the murder of two children in Mulukukú; the accused (now arrested and charged) had taken part in the opposition attack on the police station there in June 2018, in which three police officers were killed. While prison conditions in Nicaragua have attracted Amnesty International’s attention, it has ignored the far worse conditions in Honduran prisons where, indeed, there have been many Covid-related deaths, including those of political prisoners such as dissident journalists.

 

There are some signs that Nicaragua’s success is, at last, gaining some appreciation. The left-wing website, Toward Freedom, ran an overwhelmingly biased article about Nicaragua’s approach to the pandemic in June, Coronavirus met with denial and silence in Nicaragua. But they are now apparently having second thoughts (despite rejecting a response jointly written by the late, great Kevin Zeese, which instead was published in Popular Resistance). The website New Humanitarian published a similarly biased piece, using largely opposition sources, in September. It has now agreed to take a second look at the issue.

 

Most encouragingly, a health worker in the UK, Rita Drobner, a biomedical scientist in a London hospital, says that the correspondence in The Lancet, including the detailed response to the criticisms from the doctors in the US, has been important in dealing with unfounded criticisms of Nicaragua in the UK. Her view is that The Lancet was in error to publish a piece that was ‘so scientifically light-weight and unsubstantiated’ but that now there has been some public discussion in a prominent place, ‘where the arguments of a poor country mounting a measured and responsible public health campaign come out stronger and clearer.’

 

It can only be a matter of time before Nicaragua’s effective response to the pandemic is recognized by the corporate media, especially as it is in such contrast to the experience of most other Latin American countries, and of course that of the US and the UK. In the meantime, opinion polls show that Nicaraguans’ trust in their health service, undoubtedly affected by the opposition propaganda campaign earlier in the year, has recovered substantially. It is also clear that Nicaragua is resuming its economic recovery, after the severe damage cause by the 2018 attempted coup, again despite the opposition’s forecasts of impending economic disaster.

 

Briefs

By Nan McCurdy

 

World Bank Certifies Success of Policies to Protect Children

The most recent World Bank report, “New Human Capital Index: Progress and Challenges in the Last Decade,” places Nicaragua among the countries where children have the highest probability of survival to five years of age, above 98%. As a lower middle income country, Nicaragua ranks higher that the average for that group of countries in several categories including the fraction of children under five who are not stunted in their growth.  In Nicaragua, the Sandinista Government has pro-children policies, two of which are the school meal program and the Nutritional Census, which has allowed for a significant decrease in malnutrition among school-aged children. The World Bank Group’s 2020 Human Capital Index includes health and education data for 174 countries – covering 98 percent of the world’s population – up to March 2020, providing a pre-pandemic baseline on the health and education of children. Radio La Primerisima, 21 Sept. 2020

 

CABEI Recognizes Gigantic Advances in Water and Sanitation

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) announced in a press release that, “With financing of more than US$100 million, the Project to Improve and Expand the Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Systems advances Nicaragua’s water and sanitation system by 96% in 19 cities of the country.” The initiative will benefit some 348,384 people with drinking water service and some 384,652 people with sanitary services in urban and rural areas. The Bank goes on to say, “The installation of these services will reduce diseases, improve hygiene, strengthen businesses, and favor medical posts and educational centers. Drinking water coverage is increasing from 81.07% to 94.08%.” The CABEI support will build nine wastewater treatment plants with their pumping stations, drive lines and distribution networks, three wastewater treatment plants; and rehabilitation of pumping stations. Dante Mossi, CABEI president, said the project of great social impact is 96% complete. Work is complete in Chinandega, Masaya, Chichigalpa, Jalapa and Santo Tomás (Chontales); a drinking water treatment plant in Jalapa; the collection system for the improvement and expansion of sewage in Masaya; construction of the sewage system in Cardenas, La Trinidad, Malpaisillo and La Primavera. Radio La Primerisima, 22 Sept. 2020

 

Strategy to Increase Tourism Worked During National Holidays   

Tourism was high from Sept. 11 to 21 during the national holidays according to the Institute of Tourism (INTUR). The government gave state workers the week off and did not charge sales tax during part of the ten days to encourage tourism and small and medium businesses. San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast had the most visitors and 73% hotel occupancy, thanks to the tax exemption. Ometepe Island had 67% occupancy and other destinations such as Tola reported high tourism rates. The highest numbers of tourists were from September 12 to 15. On Corn Island, INTUR reported 40% hotel occupancy, while at Pearl Lagoon on the northern Caribbean coast, more than a thousand people were on the beaches. In Catarina and the Apoyo Lake, businesses, mainly restaurants, reported a full house, especially during the weekends. Radio La Primerisima, 21 Sept. 2020

 

2,600 Families Receive Legal Title to Their Homes in September

2,600 property titles will have been delivered in the month of September to the same number of families throughout the country, so they can have legal security for their land and their home. Radio La Primerisima, 21 Sept. 2020

 

Nicaragua Highlights Community Programs at Regional Conference

The Nicaragua Ministry of the Family, Children and Adolescents, as Pro-Tempore President of the Council of Ministers of Central American Social Integration (SICA), organized the “Best Practices for Social Protection in the Context of COVID-19” conference with the European Union Program for Social Cohesion in Latin America EUROsociAL + and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Minister Johana Flores stated that “in the face of the challenges of Covid-19, Nicaragua has reinforced social programs to mitigate the collateral effects of the pandemic among the population.” She highlighted the Vaccination Campaign and the new “My Hospital, My Community” campaign that guarantees safe and timely access to public health. She also noted that the “Nicaragua Educa” platform has been strengthened to complement in-person education with supplemental education on television and teachers have been trained in emotional support techniques for students with fears associated with the pandemic. She highlighted food security through greater financing of efforts to eradicate hunger. The event was convened to exchange best practices for social protection that can be included in the development of the Central America and Dominican Republic Recovery, Social Reconstruction and Resilience Plan. Nicaragua News, 21 Sept. 2020

 

New Survey Finds Support for Life Sentence for Heinous Crimes

Ninety-one percent of Nicaraguans support the approval of life sentences for people who commit hateful crimes according to the latest survey by M&R Consultores, revealed September 23. 85.6% of people interviewed say they know or have heard of the government’s proposal to punish people who commit these types of crimes with life sentences. 91% of the population approves of the implementation of a reform to the penal code; 87% say it would bring peace of mind to the society.

 

The survey of M&R Consultores also included the health program “My hospital in my community,” where 86% of those interviewed said it benefits the population. 91.8% of respondents said that this type of program implemented by the Sandinista Government is very important, since it allows access to health care at no cost. Almost 80% of Nicaraguans say they will make use of the health strategy implemented throughout the country. Regarding the prevention of Covid-19, 98% of those consulted said they wash their hands, 95% use masks, 94% use alcohol gel, and 18% take other measures. 72% said they have adopted levels of physical distancing as a measure to prevent Covid-19. Radio La Primerisima, 23 Sept. 2020

 

Foreign Agents and Funds to Be Regulated

On Sept. 23 the National Assembly sent to committee to be debated an initiative of law to regulate foreign agents, which will be applied to natural and juridical persons that respond to foreign interests and financing and carry out activities of a foreign government or foreign organization that involve interference in internal matters of Nicaragua or that put at risk the national security. The law would establish that organizations, associations, natural or legal persons, Nicaraguan or of other nationalities, who receive financing in Nicaragua, or goods or any object of value coming directly or indirectly from foreign governments, agencies, foundations, societies or associations of whatever type or nature, must register in the Registry of Foreign Agents established in this law. The bill says that all organizations, agencies or individuals, who work with, receive funds from or respond to organizations that are owned or controlled directly or indirectly by foreign governments or entities must register as foreign agents with the Ministry of the Interior. Anonymous donations are prohibited. Donations must be received through any supervised financial institution and must explain amounts, destinations, uses and purposes of the money donated. Foreign agents must refrain from intervening in matters, activities or internal policy issues. This law would prohibit financing any type of organization, movement, political party, coalition or political alliance or association that develops internal political activities. Informe Pastran 22 Sept. 2020

 

Turtles Arrive at La Flor to Lay Their Eggs

Thousands of sea turtles began to arrive at La Flor protected wildlife refuge in Rivas Department. Some 8,623 turtles arrived during the first season of the year which ran from May to early August. The second season runs through October. On September 18 and 19, university students from the National Union of Nicaraguan Students (members of University Student Union) and the Environmentalist Movement Guardabarranco, shared this natural process that is a national treasure. The activities have been supervised by the team of park rangers, the Ministry of the Environment and the Nicaraguan Army. See Photos here: http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/289577/miles-de-tortugas-llegan-al-refugio-de-vida-silvestre-la-flor/ Radio La Primerisima, 19 Sept. 2020

 

Weekly Covid-19 Report from the Health Ministry 

For the week comprising Sept. 15 to 21 the Health Ministry reports 86 new cases, 115 people recuperated during the week and 2 deaths. The registered totals since March 18 are 4,065 cases, 3,804 people recuperated and 149 deaths. Juventud Presidente, 22 Sept. 2020

 

New Interviews with Survivors of Opposition Violence in 2018

Violent opposition groups at the roadblocks during the attempted coup in 2018 set fire to Claudia Garcia Barbarena’s home in Juigalpa, Chontales, when she was inside with her elderly parents late on the night of July 4, 2018. In an interview with journalist Stephen Sefton, Garcia said that the first attack was came at 11 p.m., when the opposition threw Molotov cocktails inside the house, not caring that there were two elderly people inside. Garcia stated that these criminal groups were led by Medardo Mairena. That same night after midnight, they attacked Garcia’s house again, setting it on fire. Garcia said that, thanks to two friends, they were able to get out of the house, and once local authorities were alerted, they acted immediately to safeguard their lives.

Garcia said, “It was very sad, painful, because as a younger person you can endure, but with two older parents in that distressing situation it was scary because if we left the house we knew what was waiting for us outside because the roadblock was a block away.” The victim of the 2018 violence also indicated Francisca Ramirez as the leader of the roadblocks in that area, and the one who gave the orders about what to do with people they kidnapped, including who was allowed to pass and who was detained. Garcia insisted that those who were at the roadblocks were criminals who even stole among themselves. “They had firearms; they had all kinds of weapons in Juigalpa and San Pedro de Lóvago.” To watch the video interview in Spanish: http://www.radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias/general/289683/golpistas-intentaron-quemar-a-ancianos-en-juigalpa/ Radio La Primerisima, 22 Sept. 2020