Covid-19 and Nicaragua: A Bigger Story of the Expedited, Clandestine Burials
The Chinandega department of Nicaragua has often been a center of international relations in the country. Whether it be for the historically decisive port city of Corinto, or the lush nature of the region, Chinandega and its departmental seat at Chinandega city are important locations in the world’s imagination. Amidst the spread of the novel coronavirus since late 2019, state officials around the world have been taking a stand to prevent the spread of the virus. Despite global efforts, COVID-19 has since reached Nicaragua, and Chinandega city has risen as the epicenter of the contagion in Nicaragua.
The nearby port city of Corinto has also been gravely affected. In fact, videos posted by Nicaraguans that show the nighttime burials of deceased COVID-19 patients are surfacing and circulating on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
#Urgente ll En Corinto, Chinandega los entierros de noche no cesan, ciudadanos graban en sus teléfonos a una camioneta del Minsa trasladando un ataúd; los nicaragüenses están documentado lo que de acuerdo a sus palabras Rosario Murillo asegura no existe. pic.twitter.com/wZIUnqsAvZ
— NicaraguaActual (@NicaraguaActual) May 18, 2020
The so called entierros exprés, or expedited burials, are now commonplace since, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus, the health ministry (MINSA) has instituted them as standard coronavirus protocol. Shortly after death, patients are put into coffins, then MINSA trucks, oftentimes escorted by police, transport them to a local cemetery where workers in white hazmat suits lay them to rest. The operations are quick and clandestine, most frequently happening between the night and early morning hours.
Aquí la misma policía escolta uno de los entierros exprés en Chinandega.
Pero Rosario Murillo dice que son vídeos de otros países y Wilfredo Navarro que el canal 10 paga para hacer montajes.🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/IQ93C0TCV0
— Hector Rosales (@Hector_RosalesA) May 18, 2020
According to complaints from family members on social networks, in most cases the health authority buries loved ones without even notifying them. Despite Minsa’s priority to keep the operations strictly clandestine, the Nicaraguan public are seeking answers. Luis Siero Alfaro, for example, captured a FaceBook Live on May 15 of the expedited burial of his father and Nicaraguan pilot, Luis Cristóbal Siero Huembes.
The Live, which lasted only 20 minutes, showed the entire process of an entierro exprés, albeit a very personal one for Siero Alfaro. Noticing the low battery on his phone, Siero Alfaro gives his goodbye, saying, “Here lies my dad, my poor dad. Protect yourselves because the truth of the situation is that—,” before cutting off.
Community testimonies in the form of social media posts are proving to be useful and necessary in the face of a state that seems to be withholding the severity of COVID-19 within its borders. Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua, and his government have imposed almost no protective policy against COVID-19 for those within its border. Overall, Human Rights Watch has characterized the response of the Nicaraguan state as reckless, saying that, “President Daniel Ortega’s administration has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with tactics that blatantly contradict global health experts’ advice and put people’s health and lives at risk.”
One such tactic included hosting a free, government-promoted boxing event in the capital city Managua, on April 25. The event was restricted to anyone with a body temperature above 37 Celsius. Attendees had to clean their hands and footwear with alcohol; Face masks and social distancing were enforced.
Without showing the seating area in the venue and thus the lack of attendance, a recording of the event was transmitted internationally on TV. On social media, the boxing event was criticized as a tactic to win the public’s favor of Ortega and his government.
Events like the boxing match were critiqued as a show and a cover-up attempt; a political strategy to keep Ortega’s government in the public’s favor. The event highlights the disconnect with the number of casualties and the affected being reported by local news. El Observatorio Ciudadano, a civil society group, counted 266 deaths and 1,270 suspected cases in all of Nicaragua as of May 16. These numbers contrast with Minsa’s official count: only 8 dead and 25 infected in Nicaragua. Although a low number of COVID-19 cases are being reported by the government, Josefina Bonilla, a doctor and public health expert in Managua, states this reflects a lack of testing. Meanwhile, Ortega on May 19th closed its border crossings with Costa Rica after a backup left 1000 trucks stranded due to COVID-19 testing by Costa Rican officials at the border. This closing will affect the Nicaraguan economy, already in “free fall” triggered by 2018’s violent repression of anti-government protests, leaving 325 dead. The repression led to a drop in consumption and to economic stagnation.
Era más fácil que te hicieran la prueba del #Covid19 en la frontera sur con Costa Rica, que en el mismo Conchita Palacios.
— Lesther Alemán (@LestherLAleman) May 19, 2020
A plummeting economy, suggests clues to the Nicaraguan state’s (lack of) response to COVID-19. According to the Washington Post, “Analysts say the government may be downplaying the epidemic for fear of more damage to the already slumping economy.” Nonetheless, the clandestine protocol of expedited burials is confusing and shocking to Nicaraguans.
Families are reporting that deaths are not being attributed to COVID-19, but rather “atypical/grave pneumonias.” Reports state that this is a disguise, especially since pneumonia is a leading public health concern in the country. News source, El Pais reported that Nicaraguan experts believe that Ortega’s government has been “disguising COVID-19” under these diseases. Family members who have suffered through the rushed and atypical burial of their loved ones, have reported feeling shocked to discover the wrong diagnosis on the death certificate.
Despite social media evidence recording the clandestine and confusing handling of COVID-19, Rosario Murillo, vice president and first lady of Nicaragua, dismisses the public evidence as manipulative campaigns, that are false news. Additionally, in an official communication to the country, Murillo labeled accusations against the government’s handling of COVID-19 as “attacks of hysteria…attacks of a cultural and mental epilepsy that affect some…especially when one has nothing to do. Idleness is a bad counselor.”
Luis Siero Alfaro, who raced after the Minsa truck transporting his deceased father, is the opposite of idleness. The government’s clandestine burials have created an environment where idleness is not an option for Nicaraguans. Expedited burials, in a country where burials are accompanied by large wakes that could last days, are an anomaly that are causing great fear and unrest in the midst of a pandemic. Nicaraguans are demanding information and venting their disapproval by taking to social media to engage in social justice. Their actions recall President Ortega’s own statement that, “Nicaraguans ‘haven’t stopped working, because if this country stops working, it dies.”
Alfredo Eladio Moreno | Pomona College
Alfredo is a second year student at Pomona College studying Latin American Studies. Although he has a profound background in medicine and chemistry, Alfredo hopes to nurture his knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean, and possibly mix both disciplines. He seeks to combine his passion for history and advocacy by drawing on his natural talents of storytelling and helping people realize their full potential. As a Latin American Correspondent, Alfredo is not only excited to write compelling narratives and forge long-lasting friendships, but also inspired to create actionable change through non-profit work.