Nicaragua Not Backing Down Despite Criticism Over Lax Measures During Pandemic

Apr 18, 2020
Originally published on April 21, 2020 8:20 am

To the dismay of some of its citizens and neighbors, Nicaragua is still holding soccer matches, food festivals and beauty pageants.

Officially, the government of socialist president Daniel Ortega says there are only three active cases and one death attributed to COVID-19. The Johns Hopkins University tracker cites nine cases and two deaths. Across the border in Costa Rica, authorities have confirmed more than 600 cases.

"No one believes the government," said Dora Maria Tellez, a staunch Ortega opponent who once served as his health minister. Now Tellez has joined health workers, scientists and activists to form the Citizens Observatory for COVID-19, to gather and publish data about the outbreak.

"There is no transparency of information controlled by the state," Tellez said. "The Health Ministry's webpage isn't updated, it doesn't have the number of tests run, how many are positive, how many negative."

Using informants in health clinics around the country, the Citizens Observatory estimates there are as many as 200 cases of COVID-19 in Nicaragua.

Not only has the government failed to issue stay-at-home or social distancing orders, the 74-year old Ortega dropped out of public view for more than a month. He finally reappeared Wednesday to give a live speech broadcast to the nation. Surrounded by top officials, Ortega decried the pandemic as a sign from God and said the U.S. should spend less on atomic bombs and more on hospitals.

Ortega insisted Nicaragua's doctors are ready to treat COVID-19 and rejected shutting down the economy, saying if Nicaraguans don't work, they will die.

Earlier this month, Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, expressed concern about Nicaragua's response to COVID-19. She cited the lack of social distancing and the convening of mass gatherings. "We have concerns about testing, contact tracing and reporting of cases," she said.

Nicaragua's borders remain open, which worries Costa Rica. Vice President Epsy Campbell Barr said her country launched operations to secure its borders and isolate citizens. Speaking on CNN, Campbell Barr said Costa Rica has turned back some 6,000 Nicaraguans in the past month. She said she did not foresee any coordinated effort between the two countries to limit the virus's spread.

"We absolutely cannot depend on anyone else. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to safeguard the lives of our people," she said.

Requests for comment from Ortega's wife, who is the government's spokeswoman and vice president, were not returned.

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All right. So big parts of the world are locked down, but Nicaragua is not. The government says they've only had 10 cases and two deaths from COVID-19. World health officials and many Nicaraguans think the country isn't taking the threat seriously. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Nicaragua's government is giving this wash-your-hands jingle a lot of airtime on TV.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: But it's also encouraging families and friends to gather, like with this new spot about a mountain biking festival held just last weekend.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are here to support a healthy lifestyle," declares the event's government promoter.

Instead of discouraging public crowds, President Daniel Ortega's regime has been sponsoring everything from food festivals to beauty pageants, leaving many citizens worried.

DORA MARIA TELLEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's impossible to know the dimensions of the epidemic in Nicaragua," says Dora Maria Tellez, a staunch Ortega opponent who once served as his health minister. In fact, the government lowers the numbers of reported cases as each patient recovers, so Tellez and other activists are stepping in.

TELLEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says, with help from informants in health clinics around the country, they estimate as many as 200 Nicaraguans have the virus. Neighboring Costa Rica has confirmed more than 600 cases and has closed its border with Nicaragua.

President Ortega, now 74, refuses to issue stay-at-home or self-distancing orders and actually dropped out of public view for more than a month. Last week, he reappeared to say there is no reason to shut down Nicaragua's economy.


KAHN: "If we stop producing, the country will disappear," he said. In a live broadcast, he called the pandemic a sign from God that the U.S. should spend less on atomic bombs and more on hospitals.

Nicaragua's lax measures have drawn a rare rebuke from the Pan American Health Organization and its director Carissa Etienne.


CARISSA ETIENNE: We have concerns about the testing, contact tracing, about the reporting of cases.

KAHN: And the convening of large gathering, she said earlier this month. Despite the criticism, Nicaragua's public schools are back in session after the Easter break.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.