Doctors are warning of looming coronavirus chaos in Nicaragua, where victims’ families and the opposition accuse President Daniel Ortega’s government of ordering “express burials” to hide the true number of infections.
To date, the Central American country has confirmed just 25 cases of the coronavirus and eight deaths. But rights groups and experts believe the numbers are far higher.
“We are entering a phase of rapid community spread of the virus,” epidemiologist Alvaro Ramirez told the AFP news agency. “As the exponential curve continues to increase and more people become infected, we are going to get a chaotic situation.”
In contrast to restrictions in other Latin American countries, Nicaragua has been criticised for an almost complete absence of measures to contain the virus.
Ortega’s government has kept schools and offices open and maintained crowd-drawing events like the national soccer league.
Hospital staff report a health system overwhelmed by patients with respiratory illnesses, and relatives say the bodies of loved ones are being carted off in pick-up trucks for “express burials” without their consent.
“Mourners are forced to chase trucks with the coffin to find out where their loved ones are being buried,” the opposition National Coalition said in a statement denouncing government secrecy.
Relatives “are threatened by police or paramilitaries so that they do not tell the truth about the causes of death,” it said.
Consuelo Mendoza said she never got a chance to say goodbye to her husband.
Alberto “Paraiso” Mendoza was a popular 74-year-old former softball player who was hospitalised for breathing problems on May 2.
That was the last day she saw him.
“He had fever, a cough and clogged lungs,” Consuelo told AFP. She was not allowed to visit him during the entire 11-day period he was being treated before he died.
After his death, she had three hours to organise a burial, and only one of his daughters was able to attend, she said.
Alberto Mendoza’s death certificate says he died of “respiratory failure and atypical pneumonia”, but his family suspects he was a victim of COVID-19.
Mendoza died in the western town of Chinandega, which is seen as the epicentre of Nicaragua’s crisis.
The tension resulting from Nicaragua’s official secrecy around the coronavirus crisis is palpable.
Uniformed and plainclothes police guard the entrances to hospitals and cemeteries to keep journalists and photographers away and prevent them from speaking to the relatives of patients.
The Nicaraguan Medical Association said at least 74 health workers had been infected with COVID-19.
Its president, Gretel Solis, claims that the country is already at the “community transmission” phase of the pandemic.
Pulmonologist Carlos Quant said many doctors “are working blind” without adequate COVID-19 testing.
“A lot of patients are coming to hospitals with data suggestive of COVID-19, both clinically and radiologically, but tests are not available,” he said.
“So, many of these cases end up with a diagnosis of atypical pneumonia,” said Quant, who works in a private medical centre.
Private companies are not authorised to carry out COVID-19 testing.
The Citizen Observatory, a non-governmental organisation made up of health workers and activists, said 266 people had died of COVID-19 as of May 13, with 1,270 suspected cases of the disease.
“The families of those killed by COVID-19 face a government that is lying to them, giving them death certificates that do not correspond to the diagnostic truth,” opposition politicians said.
Nicaraguan Vice President and Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo accused the opposition of spreading lies in order to stoke anti-government sentiment.
Alluding to widespread reports of “express burials”, she accused the media of “creating false realities” to make it appear that events in other countries were happening in Nicaragua.
Ortega, meanwhile, announced on Monday that 309 people have died of pneumonia since January in the Central American country, 87 more people than in the same period last year, but that only some deaths were linked to the coronavirus.
“Some of them have to do with the pandemic; there are many deaths due to pneumonia, as well,” he said on national television. He did not address the cause for the rise in pneumonia, which can produce symptoms similar to the coronavirus.