An update on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Central American countries

By Martin Mowforth

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic is affecting economic, social and environmental development in Central America. The problem for a website entry that updates a fast-changing situation such as this pandemic is that by the time the entry is made onto the website the data it presents soon becomes out-of-date. So I have tried to limit the significance of the statistical data given here and to paint a background picture to the spread of the virus in each country.

That said, I begin with virus statistics as at 18th April 2020. The data are taken from SICA, the System of Central American Integration at:  https://www.sica.int/coronavirus and are updated each day, so readers can easily check current levels of infection. Also more detailed statistics are given on the Worldometer website at: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/panama/

(Note: The Dominican Republic is included in the data because it is a member state of the DR-CAFTA free trade treaty signed in 2006.)

Quite apart from the epidemiological trends and features of the pandemic, various political, economic and social trends have resulted from the spread of the virus. A few of these are briefly mentioned in the remainder of this summary.

Clearly, the worst affected countries are the Dominican Republic and Panamá. In the case of Panamá, the government declared a state of emergency on 10th March. By the 22nd April, the number of new cases in Panamá appears to have subsided somewhat and the number of new deaths per day has reached a plateau. Because of poor compliance with self-isolation measure, in early April Panama took a different approach to combat the spread of the virus: separation of the sexes. Only women are allowed to leave their homes to buy necessities on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Men in Panama are allowed to venture outside to run errands on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Everyone has to stay home on Sundays.

In Costa Rica a state of emergency was declared on 10th March, especially because people were not following guidelines on social distancing. On 18th March the country closed its borders to all foreigners. Internationally, Costa Rica has attracted attention due to the suggestion made by President Alvarez that the world should develop a Technology Intellectual Property Pool [TIPP] that will accelerate scientific discovery, technology development, proof of safety/efficacy/quality, and broad sharing of the benefits of scientific advancement and its applications in furtherance of the right to health. As proposed by Costa Rica, the formation of TIPP would be coordinated in the first instance by the WHO after which operational implementation might be assigned to other coordinating entities. Such an agreement would bring pressure to bear on the large pharmaceutical companies to share their patents and so is unlikely to be supported by President Trump. It is possible, however, that such an initiative will be instigated through the WHO in the near future despite Trump’s suspension of US payment of dues to the WHO.

The Nicaraguan government has adopted the Swedish approach to the virus – that is, recommendation of social distancing but without a lockdown. For this they have attracted considerable criticism from the opposition who have been spreading all kinds of rumours on social media, not the least of which suggests that President Daniel Ortega is either very ill or dead. The small but voluble, US-supported opposition is essentially claiming that the government is taking a ‘do little‘ approach, and is irresponsible in its disregard for its population. Of course the government counters these arguments, pointing out its high level of testing, the fact that it has the best and most accessible health system in Central America and the lowest number of Covid-19 cases (10 as of Monday 20th April) and deaths (2 as of the same date). In response to the data, the opposition claims governmental manipulation of the figures – i.e., fraudulent reporting. As almost always, the opposition never feels the need to present evidence for its claims.

In El Salvador, the virus appears to have given President Nayib Bukele an opportunity to extend his authoritarian tendencies with enforcement measures being strictly implemented to ensure that people self-isolate. He has given local mayors the power to enforce isolation instructions. A recent report has surfaced of a doctor requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals after being critical of the government’s approach to the virus. The economic toll of the lockdown is reported to be especially harsh in rural areas where many businesses have simply closed making it difficult for many people to get their basic necessities.

Honduras has over 500 cases of infection by the virus and has suffered 46 deaths resulting from it. But it also has the weakest public health system in Latin America. In part this is due to attempts to privatise the system and in part due to a series of corruption scandals involving the embezzling of funds supposedly destined for the health system. Over recent years the public health system has been looted by corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen, and is in a poor state to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. As this website has reported at various times in previous articles, the Honduran government is run by organised crime and drug traffickers who care nothing of the public health of the Honduran population. San Pedro Sula, the country’s second city, and the Sula valley in which it is located are reported to have an exceptionally high rate of infection which may or may not be associated with the extensive plantations in that area – see below under ‘Plantations’. COFADEH, the most respected and reliable Honduran human rights organisation has reported that around 800 Hondurans have been detained since the regime’s coronavirus military-enforced lockdown began. The exploited poor simply cannot stay at home and obey the order because they live day-to-day and don’t have the economic means.

Worldometer reports over 300 cases of infections and 8 deaths caused by coronavirus as of 22nd April in Guatemala. On 20th April eight public health officials were fired (including two deputy health ministers) for conspiring to defraud state funds that were destined for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, has formally requested the removal of Health Minister Hugo Monroy from office due to his slow and poor management of the pandemic. As with most of the other Central American countries, Guatemala has a historical shortfall of hospital beds and personal protective equipment for health workers.

Belize has closed most of its ports of entry, although its international airport remained open until the state of emergency was declared. On 1st April the government declared a state of emergency to last for 30 days along with a curfew from 8 pm to 5 am every day. As of 22nd April, there are believed to be 18 cases of infection and to have been two deaths.

Unionised workers on plantations in Latin America have been seeking special measures to protect their health and their incomes while transnational fruit companies seek to ensure continued supplies of tropical fruits to supermarkets in Europe and North America. German supermarkets have committed to sourcing their bananas from companies that commit to paying their plantation workers a living wage.

The following statement by Dr Juan Almendares Bonilla presents the Covid-19 pandemic in a perspective that differs from the usual commentary. Juan Almendares is a Honduran physician, former university rector and formerly director and leading light of both the Movimiento Madre Tierra (Friends of the Earth Honduras) and the Centre for the Prevention of Torture. An interview I conducted with Juan in 2010 appears in the Interviews section of this website.

“Honduras and Guatemala are countries of pandemics: the pandemics of hunger and no access to water, of dengue, corruption, repression, and today of Covid-19. All these pandemics are inter-related. Trying to focus public, private, social and international cooperation actions and resources on one pandemic – COVID-19 – without an integral approach strategy, only deepens the others. That is, there will be more people living with hunger, dengue, lack of water and loss of resources due to corruption and repression.”

Pandemic to bring about a change of development model in Central America?

By Martin Mowforth

Key words: neoliberal economic development; system shock; export model of growth; de-growth.

In a 2nd May article published in El Salvador’s daily newpaper La Prensa Gráfica, Ernesto Mejía reported on a speech made by Seynabou Sakho, Director for Central America within the World Bank in which he asserted that the region would have to change its model of development when the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic has subsided.

As examples of the kind of changes that would be needed, Mr Sakho cited the need to close the technology gap between Central America and the developed world, the need to give access to education and health services at a distance, and to give higher priority to spending on health and social protections for the most vulnerable sectors. He also cited the need for business to develop an economy based on much lower carbon emissions.

“This crisis has the potential to affect access to education, nutrition and health for many people. We shall have to invest more in human capital and ensure that people are protected,” stated Sakho. He also spoke of the need to postpone for at least six months the debt repayments to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund of the two most indebted countries, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Whilst recommendations to focus more on health, education and social protections are laudable as aims, his speech did not sound like the fundamental switch of direction that is required if development policy is to genuinely benefit the vast majority of people in the region. Instead of bolstering big business and continuing with the export model of development, the World Bank and IMF should be refusing to invest in fossil fuel exploration and exploitation, and refusing to support an industrial model of agriculture which uses the best land in the region to grow crops destined for Europe and North America. They should stop their promotion of privatisation of public services and natural resources and should urge the governments of the region to legislate for stringent regulation to ensure that the production of all goods does not harm humans or their environments or communities.

A crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for the bosses of capital. The neoliberal model of economic development – capitalism on steroids – is failing all around us, and its failings have been shown most clearly by the capitalist system’s inability to cope with such a shock. The frailty of a system which divorces people’s means of consumption from their means of production has become exposed. If capitalism recovers from this shock, it will only be until the next shock exposes again its unsustainability. It cannot continue to recover indefinitely. A new model based on de-growth, the marriage of local production and consumption, and the valuation of human and environmental wellbeing rather than financial accumulation, is urgently needed if humanity is going to advance into the 22nd century with a planet in reasonably productive and healthy shape.

Honduras During The COVID19 Pandemic: Why We Shouldn’t Go Back to ‘Normal’

By Karen Spring

May 12, 2020

Karen Spring is the Honduras-based Coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network (HSN). We are grateful to Karen for permission to reproduce the article here. The article appeared in ‘Popular Resistance’ and was produced with the help of ‘Task Force on the Americas’. Karen blogs at aquiabajo.com. The HSN can be found on Facebook: Honduras Solidarity, and Twitter: @hondurassol.

Key words: Capitalism; COVID-19; Garifuna; OFRANEH; Honduras; Deportations of Hondurans.

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On May 5, a group of Afro-indigenous Garifuna men stood guard at the entrance of La Travesía community in the department of Cortés in northern Honduras. The men were fumigating vehicles, documenting the traffic transiting through their community, and implementing other bio-security measures as part of community-led prevention efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In the afternoon, a police vehicle arrived and stopped at the check point. The Garifuna men were told they had to disperse and could not put up a check-point, which according to the police is illegal. When the local residents insisted on maintaining it, the police threatened to return with a military convoy and to launch tear gas to break it up. The community refused to budge.

The measures at community access points are just one of many strategies that local Honduran communities are using to protect themselves. According to Miriam Miranda, the General Coordinator for the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH) who spoke on a May 6 webinar organised by the Honduras Solidarity Network, “We initiated the creation of COVID-19 attention centres in the communities. We activated networks that have historically operated in the communities. One of the fundamental aspects is that we decided that it was urgent and necessary to create solidarity networks to protect our elders, not just because of their physical vulnerability but because they are the repositories of Garifuna culture and knowledge.”

Miranda also explained how Garifuna leaders in over 26 communities are offering workshops on medicinal plants that can be used to strengthen the immune system and organising community food distribution projects.

Community-led efforts are inspiring for many but they are also a sign of citizen mistrust of governmental COVID-19 management and mitigation efforts led by President Juan Orlando Hernández and Honduran state security forces. From the time that a few cases of coronavirus were reported in Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández imposed an absolute nation-wide curfew and partially suspended constitutional rights including freedom of expression. Military and police set up check-points all around the country to enforce the curfew.

In response, all around the country, many began to protest insisting that they could not afford to lockdown. Large protests organised by hungry and poor Hondurans who cannot work or have been fired from their jobs, are broken up with tear gas and live bullets fired by state security forces. Thousands of people have been arrested.

An already difficult political, human rights and economic situation in Honduras is being exacerbated by the pandemic. The crisis that led to the exodus of Hondurans to the southern U.S. Border lay bare in 2019 the level of the poverty, desperation, and political crisis unfolding in the country over 10 years since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup d’état. Like in many places around the world, the pandemic is only worsening an already terrible and desperate situation. At the time of writing, the Honduran government has reported 1,685 COVID-19 cases and 105 deaths and the numbers continue to grow.

In alleged efforts to minimize the impact of the pandemic, the Honduran Congress approved over $888 million including loans from international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Despite these efforts, Hondurans are convinced that the government has no intention of equipping the public hospitals or helping those in dire need citing the ‘corruption pandemic’ that has totally depleted public institutions, particularly the healthcare system, for years.

Sure enough, it did not take long for the first scandal to erupt. On April 27, the Anti-Corruption Council (CNA) published a report outlining the most recent COVID-19 corruption scandal involving four companies – three Honduran and one based in the United States – that were contracted by the Honduran government to provide coronavirus bio-security equipment to hospitals. According to the report, the contracts overvalued the purchases of N95 and disposable surgical masks by $2.3 million and all four companies are linked directly to family members of the National Party, the current party in power.

A few days after the CNA report, another scandal hit the Honduran media calling into question, yet again, the legitimacy of the government.  On April 30, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Southern District Court of New York indicted the former head of the U.S. funded and trained Honduran National Police, Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla Valladares on drug trafficking charges. The indictment directly takes aim at President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) and his brother, Tony Hernández, the latter awaiting sentencing in a New York prison for large-scale drug trafficking.

The indictment reads: “… on behalf of convicted former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández and his brother the president, Bonilla Valladares oversaw the transshipment of multi-ton loads of cocaine bound for the U.S., used machine guns and other weaponry to accomplish that, and participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker, to further the conspiracy.”

Despite the serious charges against Bonilla, the mention of JOH in the indictment sparked new hope in Honduras that the head of the ‘narco-military dictatorship’ would one day be charged. However, many in Honduras remain confused about how the clear accusations in the DOJ statement strongly contradict the U.S. government’s consistent support for JOH’s government. This includes President Donald Trump’s recent mention of “the President of the Republic of Honduras is a really nice guy” in a press conference in the Oval Office less than a week before the DOJ indictment of Bonilla Valladares was made public.

It seems that President Juan Orlando Hernández has mastered how to remain in the good graces of President Trump by promoting policies of specific interest to Trump. On March 13, two days before the COVID-19 lockdown was implemented, the Honduran government published and therefore, activated the Honduras- U.S. ‘safe third country’ agreement. The agreement is one of Trump’s racist immigration policies that forces asylum seekers in the U.S. to be sent to Honduras and other Central American countries to allegedly seek protection there.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the timing of the agreement’s activation may increase the number of deportations to Honduras. Despite widespread reports of COVID-19 cases in U.S. migrant detention centres, deportations to Central America have not stopped. According to a report recently published by the Centre for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), the U.S. sent 18 deportation flights to Honduras from March 15 (the day the coronavirus lockdown was imposed in Honduras) to April 24.

At least one case of a Honduran woman recently deported from the U.S. suspected of having COVID-19 has been reported by the local press. Upon arriving to Honduras, the woman was arrested in relation to a pending charge, sent to prison in western Copán, and then a few days later, taken to the emergency wing of one of the largest public hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms. To date, there have been no reports of COVID-19 cases in the prison where the woman was held, but her brief, unprotected presence may lead to cases reported in the future.

There are still several weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic crises to unfold in Honduras, particularly since the virus infection rate has not yet peaked. Despite over ten years of active resistance and subsequent repression, Hondurans continue to organise locally, regionally, and nationally to protest the causes of the crises and put forward solutions.

Like in La Travesía, and other Garifuna communities along the coast, Hondurans from all parts of the country are finding ways to protect themselves and gathering together, like in Tegucigalpa, to organise food distribution networks to support the families most in need. These efforts are ways that Hondurans hope to avoid returning to ‘normal’ which according to Miriam Miranda, “would be irresponsible.”

“The pandemic really calls upon us to reflect about how the current ferocious, murderous, capitalist system that kills our environment and natural resources does not work for humanity” says Miranda, “we should not go back to the same as before.”

 

Updates on COVID-19 in Central America

By Martin Mowforth

By most accounts the most reliable statistics on the incidence of COVID-19 in the America is the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). Any statistics given here will rapidly become out-of-date as the situation changes, but we start this brief update with PAHO’s 22nd June (2020) statistics on COVID-19 in Central America.

Source: https://www.paho.org/en/topics/coronavirus-infections/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-pandemic  (as at 22nd June 2020)

 

It is also worth noting that few if any governments have reliable statistics about COVID-19 deaths and new cases, in part due to the definitions of causes of death, in part due to the confusion of causes for those already suffering health problems, in part due to the lag time in reporting of cases, and in part due to governmental tendencies to downplay data that may be seen as bad for the image.

Panamá certainly has suffered more than the rest of Central America. The country is now beginning to ease restrictions on economic activity (through six phases) despite the fact that the daily new cases continues to increase. The opening of the economy, however, is justified by the authorities by the fall in the death rate and increase in the recovery rate.

The current urgent cause for concern in the region is Honduras. Despite the fact that the week from 13th to 20th June saw a steady decline in the daily number of deaths, a headline in El Economista suggested that the Honduran capital city Tegucigalpa is set to become the next epicentre of Covid-19 in Central America due to a sudden rapid increase in cases there. Doctors were expressing alarm about the increase in cases and called for urgent government action to increase testing capacity. They also suggested that all those with the virus should be hospitalised but at the same time described the hospitals as being in a state of collapse and the population doing all they could to avoid going to hospitals. The Honduran authorities temporarily closed at least six popular markets to improve biosecurity measures.

Also beginning a slow opening of the economy is El Salvador; but here too there are warnings of hospitals under severe pressure and morgues which have ceased operating or have ‘collapsed’ under the number of corpses. On 19th June doctors in the General Hospital of the Salvadoran Institute of Social Security briefly went on strike to denounce the lack of a care plan for emergencies. La Prensa Gráfica included photos of patients with tanks of oxygen in beds in corridors and “almost in the car park”. As in other countries, the official death toll has been disputed by doctors and government critics and is believed by some to be much higher than the official Ministry of Health figures.

Nicaragua is the only country in the region not to have ordered a full lockdown of its population, and for this it has become a target for attack by its opponents both inside and outside the country. The polarization between the government and its supporters on the one hand and the opposition on the other is almost as extreme as it was in the ‘coup’ or ‘uprising’ of the three months from April 2018; and it is just as difficult to be sure about which version of events approaches anything like the truth as it was during the 2018 troubles, as described by ENCA in articles in ENCA 74 (November 2018) and ENCA 75 (April 2019). Much of the argument revolves around the numbers of deaths which the opposition claims to be censored by the government. In its turn the opposition has produced figures almost twenty times the government data. Government supporters have debunked many of the deaths on the opposition’s lists, but there remains widespread doubt about the government figures too. One of the more measured articles to address this argument that has appeared recently is that of Quitzé Valuenzuela-Stookey in the NACLA online updates (North American Congress on Latin America) – see sources below for reference. It is important to bear in mind that Nicaragua’s approach to its public health service is rather different from that of the region’s other countries. It is geared strongly towards alleviating the other pandemics of poverty and malnutrition, and as such its strategy takes the medics to the communities and the households rather than or as well as providing centralised treatment to which people must travel. In the case of Covid-19 such a strategy may be misguided, but it seems unlikely to be any worse than the badly coordinated, unprepared, bungling strategies pursued by many western capitalist countries.

Costa Rica has temporarily suspended the third phase of its re-opening of the economy due to an unexpected spike of 119 new cases on 19th June. This was the country’s highest number of daily registered new cases since the pandemic began. The third phase allowed for the opening of churches, museums and other organisational meetings up to a maximum of 75 persons with a distance of 1.8 meters between them. The Minister of Health, Daniel Salas, also suspended the Costa Rica football cup final until further notice even though it was to be played without crowd participation.

At the best of times, Guatemala has a 60 per cent poverty rate and suffers high levels of malnutrition. These are the worst of times and many people stand out on the street waving white flags, not as a mark of surrender, but as a sign that they have no food and are hungry.

Belize has closed most of its ports of entry apart from its one international airport and the Santa Elena terrestrial border crossing. Foreign nationals cannot enter the country, although the restrictions on Belizeans travelling between municipalities have now been eased. The curfew between 8 pm and 5 am remains in force. Hotels remain open but are not allowed to take international bookings.


Sources:

https://www.paho.org/en/topics/coronavirus-infections/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-pandemic

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/panama/

Quitzé Valenzuela-Stookey, 17 June 2020 ‘Deciphering Nicaragua’s Tepid Covid Response’, North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) updates.

Sofía Menchú, Nelson Rentería, 21 May 2020 ‘As hunger spreads under lockdown, Guatemalans and Salvadorans raise white flag’, Reuters.

La Prensa Gráfica, 19 June 2020 ‘Costa Rica suspende tercera fase de apertura por récord de casos diarios de coronavirus’.

Nan McCurdy, 15 June 2020 ‘US-Led Nicaraguan Opposition Inflates COVID-19 Death Lists’, Popular Resistance.

Evelyn Machuca, 20 June 2020 ‘”Tenemos pacientes encamados en las calles”: médicos ISSS hacen huelga por falta de insumos’, La Prensa Gráfica.

Mirna Velásquez, 21 June 2020 ‘Hospitales desbordados por pacientes de covid-19 en El Salvador’, La Prensa Gráfica.

El Economista, 19 June 2020 ‘Tegucigalpa puede ser el próximo epicentro de la covid-19 en Centroamérica’.

Mirna Velásquez, 22 June 2020, ‘Reportan arriba de 300 fallecidos entre casos positivos y sospechosos en El Salvador’,  La Prensa Gráfica.