2 April 2020

A state of denial: is this the world’s worst coronavirus response?

By Paul Canning

What would the world’s worst coronavirus response look like?

You can get a good idea by looking at a report last week from the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College. The study included projections about a number of countries – and if you think the UK is struggling with testing and social distancing, spare a thought for the people of Nicaragua.

Two weeks ago, while people all over the world were locking down and staying at home to avoid transmitting the virus, the Nicaraguan government decided to organise a big parade, catchily titled “Love in the Time of Covid-19”. In scarcely believable scenes, thousands of government workers and regime supporters carried placards saying “welcome coronavirus to a free Nicaragua” and “victory over the coronavirus”. There were even floats. “The coronavirus has not reached Nicaragua thanks to our Commander Daniel,” they boasted.

That would be President Daniel Ortega. His wife Rosario Murillo, who also happens to be Vice-President, promised Nicaraguans that “we will be walking with the force of faith and hope throughout the country, in solidarity with all the peoples, families and brothers and sisters of the entire world”.

The former guerrilla leader and ex-Minister of Health, Dora Maria Tellez, offered a withering assessment: “Ortega and Murillo should be charged for exposing people to danger. They’re playing with the public health of Nicaraguans and forcing the state workers to attend a high-risk activity”.

And despite the spiralling death rate in other countries, the Ortega regime’s attitude continues to be staggeringly casual. Just yesterday a Nicaraguan friend told me that Murillo is now encouraging families to visit each other over the Easter holiday next week.

The figures are stark enough. The Imperial report suggests that if Ortega’s government adopts no mitigation or social distancing measures then within a year 91% of the population will have become infected and 24,304 people will die.

Though Ortega himself is all but invisible, his wife is very much the figurehead of the regime. The best way to understand Rosario Murillo is like a cross between Marianne Williamson and Uday Hussein. The “universal super minister of health, emotions, spirituality, repression and so on,” as Tellez calls her.

Every day she gives a 30-minute talk at noon, the content of which has to be seen to be believed. There is much talk of “love” (something they have in common with the Venezuelans) and God, although the regime has little love for the Catholic church. Sandinista mayors have even tried to organise religious activities, including Easter services, to replace events cancelled by the churches who are taking this disease seriously.

Borders are not closed, and nor are public schools – although Murillo has hypocritically allowed private schools and colleges to close and move to online teaching. Any attempt at quarantine is dismissed as “alarming and extremist” and comparing Nicaragua to Europe is wrong “because our health system is free”.

Medics cannot wear masks in hospitals  – because that would alarm people – yet they have been ordered to visit every household, without protection, “under threat of dismissal and political retaliation”. Clips of these visits show militants propagandising about the leadership and telling families that they should continue to send kids to school and not to listen to “alarmists”.

The regime is so keen to claim that all coronavirus cases are imported that it even got into a spat with the Cubans when they had the temerity to suggest one of their citizens – a black marketeer –  had acquired the virus on a visit to Nicaragua.

The insanity continues online, with pro-regime militants sharing memes with Westerners wearing masks saying: “While they cover up, we smile.” Another one says “COVID19, disease of the rich and bourgeois! DIVINE JUSTICE for poor and oppressed peoples!”.

The latter plays on the fact that in Latin America coronavirus first infected those who had travelled, the middle class, or in the case of Venezuela the so-called ‘bolibourgeoisie’ of rich Maduro supporters.

As for actually dealing with the virus, journalist Wilfredo Miranda has reported district Sandinista coordinators telling neighborhoods that: “Cubans already have a vaccine for coronavirus, so there is no need to worry”. There is also a claim doing the rounds that the Cubans have already cured “most of those affected in China”. This all stems from the Cubans’ propaganda claims about the drug Interferon alfa 2b, which Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel has called a “cure” for coronavirus.

That is itself part of a wider propaganda war, touting the beneficent Cuban health system and the evils of US sanctions. You may have heard about Cuban doctors in Italy. Less well known is how Cuba helped destroy Venezuela’s health care system or their role in supervising torture in Nicaragua.

This all sounds farcical, but it’s deadly serious. In just a few weeks’ time Nicaragua’s health care system could be completely overwhelmed. If the country does avoid the worst it will only be because civil society and the 76% of Nicaraguans who disapprove of the government’s handling of the epidemic have ignored the regime and followed the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.

Perhaps the most potent slogan of this era – and one that may save some lives – is “be like Ortega. Stay at home”.

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Paul Canning is a writer and activist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.