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 Any statistics given here will rapidly become out-of-date as the situation changes, but we start this brief update with PAHO’s 22nd June (2020) statistics on COVID-19 in Central America.
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.
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.