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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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NICARAGUA: Challenging the official narrative

A “non-partisan” response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This was one of the demands made this week by influential private sector lobby Cosep to the government led by President Daniel Ortega, which has attracted criticism for its relative inaction compared with other countries in the region [WR-20-16]. In its list of demands, Cosep highlighted a further growing complaint raised not only by local civil-society groups and medical associations but also the international community: doubts over the veracity of official information pertaining to the pandemic.

Having previously actively encouraged mass gatherings and seemingly eschewed strategies aimed at enforcing social distancing and sanitary measures, albeit while emphasising prevention strategies, at the end of April Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo suggested a change of tack. She said the government would promote social distancing and the use of facemasks and would intensify actions to disinfect public transport and other public spaces such as bus shelters, markets, places of work, and schools.

However, these concessions fell far short of other demands such as the suspension of non-essential economic activity and prohibition of mass gatherings applied in other countries, and the government response to the pandemic continues to attract criticism. In a statement published on 11 May, Cosep, which is part of the opposition Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia (ACJD), urged the government to declare a state of emergency, close schools and universities, cancel all artistic, sporting, cultural or political events, and limit public transport. Cosep also highlighted the need to provide access to “transparent information” which it said was “key to saving lives” - a demand which is increasingly being made across the board. After failing to publish updates on the number of Covid-19 cases for six days, changing from daily updates to a weekly one, on 12 May the health ministry announced the latest figures which showed a total of 25 confirmed cases. The same report also noted eight fatalities as a result of Covid-19 but did acknowledge other (unquantified) deaths due to causes such as pneumonia.

Doubts regarding the veracity of official information have long been raised by various organisations including a local multidisciplinary scientific committee (CCM), which comprises 12 senior health officials, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and international NGOs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Most recently, on 12 May, the head of PAHO’s Health Emergencies department Ciro Ugarte alluded to “multiple unofficial reports that point to a high number of patients with symptoms of acute respiratory infection, particularly in Managua, Chinandega and other places and an increase in deaths by atypical pneumonia”. As well as referencing earlier concerns highlighted by the PAHO regarding issues such as the reporting of cases, which he said persisted, Ugarte also raised “particular concern because social distancing and the call to mass events continues”. (Despite the emphasis on social distancing, the government continues to promote mass events such as traditional fiestas scheduled this month to take place in Chinandega).

As regards the unofficial reports to which Ugarte alluded, a report circulated in the local media on 11 May by Observatorio Ciudadano Covid-19, a collaborative civil society group set up in March to monitor the local epidemic, put suspected Covid-19 cases at 1,033. However, the Observatorio, which bases its reports on information from “civil society, territorial networks, digital activists, and relatives of those affected by Covid-19”, stresses that the figures are not official.

Former health ministers express concern

On 11 May, five former Nicaraguan health ministers (Lea Guido [1980-1985], Dora María Téllez [1985-1990], Lombardo Martínez Cabezas [1997-1999], Martha McCoy [1999-2000] and Margarita Gurdián [2004-2007]) signed an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), warning that Nicaragua was facing an “extreme risk” due to the pandemic, a situation they said had been exacerbated by the government’s inaction.