Nicaragua in the Time of COVID-19

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Presidente de El Salvador participa en Cumbre SICA-Nicaragua.

President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega /Flickr / Creative Commons

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have not appeared in public for 28 days, but their response to the threat of COVID‑19 has consistently been the equivalent of “Don’t worry, no problem, we got this!” Government policies suggest it is going out of its way to pretend the virus poses no threat to Nicaraguans.

  • On April 4, the pro-Ortega city council of Altagracia on the tourist island of Omotepe promoted a motorcyclist gathering by offering free fuel and free transport on very crowded ferries. Press photos of the event show no masks and no social distancing.
  • Several days earlier, the government orchestrated the arrival of hundreds of supporters to celebrate the opening of a bridge in Granada, with a similar absence of anti-viral measures.
  • In late March, “health brigades” were mobilized to visit households and provide information on how to avoid COVID‑19, but some citizens refused the visitors because of the lack of social distancing.
  • Private schools have closed, but public schools and universities have not. Media reports are that primary and secondary teachers are being pressured to schedule exams to compel attendance. Some parents are keeping their children at home anyway.
  • On March 13, Murillo convoked a march (but did not personally participate) entitled “Love in the Time of COVID-19,” with thousands of party supporters and public employees and their children marching in close contact.

Citizens say the government’s posture has not been reassuring and are taking action themselves. The government has not revealed the number of tests conducted, but has reported only six cases of coronavirus, all people who had been abroad, with one confirmed death. It reports no community transmission inside Nicaragua, although three Cuban women have tested positive for the virus after visiting Nicaragua. Dora María Téllez, who was a Health Minister in the 1980s, says the government is not seriously pursuing contact tracing. Costa Rica’s admission of 502 confirmed cases makes people doubt Managua’s figures. Local leaders, most affiliated with the government, have shown little willingness to taking independent action on the virus.

  • In a mid-March survey, CID-Gallup found that 65 percent of Nicaraguans were “not at all satisfied” with the government’s handling of the virus, while 11 percent were “dissatisfied.” In the same survey, 57 percent said they felt there was “much risk of contagion” in their neighborhood, and another 25 percent felt there was “some risk.”
  • Taking matters into their own hands, family-owned market stalls in public markets started closing weeks ago. Two major companies in maquila zones last week furloughed 19,000 workers to protect their health. Citizens have created an Observatorio Ciudadano COVID‑19 to collect data on cases and exposures to the virus. The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) has pleaded with the government to close schools and allow private hospitals to test for the virus, and it joined the Central American Institute for Business Administration (INCAE) and other private-sector organizations to encourage social distancing, urge debt relief for the poor, and create a Humanitarian Assistance Fund. The government has not responded to their offers to cooperate.

Nicaraguan experts, such as epidemiologist Leonel Argüello, fear the country could eventually have as many as 500,000 COVID‑19 infections, implying thousands of deaths. The consequences for Nicaragua’s years-long political standoff are unclear. While the business community is extending an open hand to deal with the crisis, the government seems disinclined to cooperate. The one situation that would alter this dynamic is if Daniel Ortega himself – who has not appeared in public for four weeks now – were to be incapacitated. On COVID‑19, Rosario appears to be calling the shots, but if Daniel is seriously ill, internal dynamics, over time, might prove unpredictable. Were he to die, it would put in jeopardy the dynastic succession that he and Murillo (and her two sons) have worked hard to put in place. Rosario and the sons are already under sanctions by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Even members of their party might see some disadvantages to having a president unable to conduct most international banking transactions.

April 9, 2020

* Kenneth M. Coleman is Director for Partner Programs at the Association of American Universities. The views expressed herein are his own.

 

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