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Resisting Lockdown, Nicaragua Becomes a Place of Midnight Burials

2020-05-31 14:41:15

MANAGUA — Just hours after Yamil Acevedo died in a hospital, funeral home workers in hazardous materials suits strapped his coffin to the back of a pickup truck, drove it to a cemetery and buried him in the dark of night.

Across Nicaragua, families are being forced to hold these “express burials,” rushed funerals at all hours of the night, without time to call a priest or to buy flowers.

The services are happening so fast, and in such a haphazard fashion, that relatives worry terrible mistakes are being made.

“The doctor said, ‘If you can bury him as soon as possible, do it,’” said Amani Acevedo, Mr. Acevedo’s daughter. “I don’t know that the person in that coffin was even him.”

Long lines have formed at the country’s hospitals, and pharmacies have run out of basic medicines. The popular baseball season has been suspended, with players refusing to take the field.

The signs are everywhere that the coronavirus is raging across Nicaragua.

But the Nicaraguan government insists it has the virus firmly under control, with the lowest Covid-19 death toll in Central America.

Nicaragua, a nation of 6.4 million people, is one of the last countries to resist adopting the strict measures that have been put in place around much of the world to curb the spread of the disease. It never closed its schools. It did not shutter businesses. Throughout the pandemic, the government not only allowed mass events — it organized them.

Families say the consequences of these decisions are being buried, literally, under cover of darkness. Without any testing for Covid-19, they are told that their loved ones died of pneumonia and — because of fear of contagion — are urged to bury them as soon as possible.

Health organizations are struggling to get accurate case numbers. Testing is limited and controlled by the government. Doctors and activists watching respiratory illnesses spread around the nation are bracing for disaster, just two years after antigovernment uprisings against President Daniel Ortega turned violent.

Facing withering criticism, the government released a report last Monday stating that critics were trying to sow chaos, and that the vast majority of people in the country, the second-poorest in the hemisphere, could not afford to lose work under a strict lockdown.

In the document, which was posted online, the government compared its approach to that of Sweden, challenging “one-size-fits all” tactics and arguing that each country’s response to the pandemic should be tailored to its own reality.

“Countries that have totally closed their economies are uncomfortable with the example of countries that do not apply a draconian closure and do not destroy their economies to face the pandemic,” the government said in the document.

The document did not say how many people had been tested for the virus or explain why the government has allowed mass events — like food festivals and a march called “Love in the Time of Covid” — to continue as planned.

In a video the government prepared, Paul Oquist, an American-born adviser to Mr. Ortega, said people in the countryside could not shelter at home because they were busy milking cows, gathering eggs and finding wood. Some 80 percent of workers in Nicaraguan cities have informal jobs, he said, and if they do not work, they do not eat.

Mr. Oquist added that the country’s health system was prepared for the outbreak because the Ortega government had increased the number of hospitals and doctors over the past 13 years. Nineteen hospitals were designated to respond to the coronavirus, and a mass campaign to disinfect taxis, buses, schools and markets was underway.

For almost two months, the government reported only handfuls of infections. In late May, however, as signs of the spread of the virus became more obvious, the government’s count shot up 10-fold, and the Ministry of Health now says it has confirmed 759 cases and 35 deaths.

The Citizen Observatory, an anonymous group of 90 doctors, epidemiologists and other public health volunteers who formed an underground organization to track coronavirus cases in Nicaragua, puts the coronavirus death toll in Nicaragua at 805. They have counted 3,725 cases as of Saturday.

The government says routine pneumonia cases, which are no higher than normal, are being conflated with the coronavirus.

Ms. Acevedo said the absurdity of the pneumonia diagnosis given her father, a 61-year-old retired executive assistant who died after a two-week illness, was underscored by the timing of his funeral: midnight.

Although experts say it is not necessary, people dying of “atypical pneumonia” are being buried quickly because of an apparent fear of contagion — making the incorrect diagnosis obvious, the family said.

Since when, Ms. Acevedo asked in an interview, do Nicaraguans bury their dead at such hours? Pneumonia cases in other years had not led to such hurried, late-night funerals.

“My father did not die of pneumonia,” Ms. Acevedo said. “My father died of Covid-19.”

With testing centralized by the government, it is difficult for private hospitals to conduct their own exams.

“They hide the information and hide the tests,” said Luis C. Siero Alfaro, whose father, Cristóbal Siero Huembes, 59, an airline pilot, died May 15. “The nights that my father was in the military hospital, they were taking 15 to 20 people out through the back every night. You could see it. You saw people filming it.”

Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady and the spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan government, has criticized such videos as “fake news” filmed in other countries.

But in a Facebook Live video that Mr. Siero shot of his father’s body being taken from the morgue to the cemetery at nightfall shows unmistakable scenes from Managua, including the “Tree of Life” structures that Ms. Murillo installed throughout the capital in 2013, which many described as a symbol of wasteful government spending.

Mr. Siero’s video shows a bare-chested gravedigger working at night, with a T-shirt pulled over his face. In the video, when Mr. Siero asked the funeral workers why they drove so fast to the cemetery, the worker said he was “following orders,” but did not say whose.

“From the moment they admitted him until he died, my father never got a test result for Covid,” despite having all the symptoms, Mr. Siero said.

Ms. Murillo did not respond to a request for comment, and a request to interview the health minister went unanswered.

Jarbas Barbosa da Silva, the assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, the regional division of the World Health Organization, said international health authorities were struggling to get accurate data from Nicaragua. Most countries provide daily figures, while Nicaragua releases only weekly numbers.

Nicaragua has not accepted the organization’s offer to send international experts to carry out an epidemiological analysis and an evaluation of Nicaragua’s health services, he said. But he said the government did eventually agree in recent weeks to limit the size of mass events.

While the government has not closed schools, most classrooms are empty: Parents are keeping their children home.

“The whole world has to understand the truth of the crime that our government is committing,” said Elena Cano, whose 46-year-old son, Camilo Meléndez, the facilities manager at the National Assembly building, died May 19 after trying to get medical care several times.

His death certificate says he died of acute respiratory failure as a consequence of “unusual severe pneumonia.”

Alfonso Flores Bermúdez reported from Managua, and Frances Robles from Key West, Fla. Alexander Villegas contributed reporting from Costa Rica.


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