Covid-19 in Nicaragua’s North Caribbean: “The Indigenous Population is Helpless”

Distance between the communities of the North Caribbean Coast Region is a complicated issue, as some communities are only accessible by water. File photo: Carlos Herrera

Pandemic hits the North Caribbean Autonomous Region hard, where more than half of those infected have died. Local leaders note historical precarious conditions and lack of government support. 

By Vladimir Vásquez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Although news about the area are scarce, the indigenous peoples in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region are hit hard by Covid-19 and their situation, according to leaders from the territories, is even more precarious than in other parts of Nicaragua. 

The most recent data from the Citizen’s Covid-19 Observatory show that from March 18 to June 24, 124 suspected cases of coronavirus have been reported in the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, including 66 dead patients, meaning that more than half of the cases have been fatal. 

This area of 32,158 square kilometers, which corresponds to 25% of the national territory, is home to a multi-ethnic population of 250,000 people, distributed in eight municipalities, including the poorest ones in the country. 

The figures from the Citizen’s Observatory on the pandemic in this region show that infections and deaths are rapidly increasing. Until June 17 a total of 87 suspected cases and 41 deaths were reported. In other words, in seven days, infections increased by 42% (from 87 to 124) and deaths increased by 60% (from 41 to 66).

Poverty and total neglect 

“The situation here is a health crisis, we have no support from any organizations or the government”, says Nancy Elizabeth Henriquez, an indigenous leader of the Miskito ethnic group, which is the majority in this region.

According to the Citizen’s Observatory, in the North Caribbean Coast the figures began to double in June, and Henriquez believes that the advance of the pandemic could be even greater. On June 25th alone there were nine deaths, and just in the early hours of the next morning another two had already died, says the also representative of the indigenous political party, Yatama, which was previously the main ally of the Sandinista party in the region, and is now part of the opposition National Coalition. 

The Miskitu leader complains that the conditions are so precarious that to deliver masks or alcohol in the poorest neighborhoods of Bilwi, they must collect funds among the same population.

The lack of oxygen tanks for patients in delicate condition is another significant problem, she says. Henriquez complains that a “little truck” arrives weekly to replenish the oxygen supply, but the demand is so great that in a couple of hours it runs out and not everyone can buy it.

Bilwi, the capital city of the North Caribbean Coast, is located more than 500 kilometers from the country’s capital Managua, it takes twelve hours to get there in a private vehicle, and in public transportation it takes up to a day and a half or two during the rainy season —which is now—, because most of the journey there is on unpaved roads where the rain causes deep mud  that prevents regular traffic. The distance between the communities of the North Caribbean Coast Region is also a complicated issue, as some communities are only accessible by water.                                 

In the predominantly Miskitu municipality of Prinzapolka, most of the population is engaged in agricultural work, and the sale of their harvests. In Waspam, on the border with Honduras and 136 kilometers from Bilwi, nine out of ten inhabitants live below the poverty level, and 80% of the 48,000 inhabitants live in extreme poverty.

In these precarious conditions, Henriquez says, infections continue to rise, as many people cannot go into quarantine and must keep working. Either they are unable to move to the regional hospital in Bilwi, which she says is overcrowded, or they cannot afford the prescriptions and other treatment costs.

Community members are not taking preventive measures

Juan Carlos Ocampo, a community activist from Bilwi, regrets that many people do not seem to grasp the seriousness of the disease, and as a result, may even have opened the coffins of their relatives to hold traditional wakes at their homes. 

“The situation is chaotic, because there is no official data and the impact of the pandemic is high. A lot of people are dying, people with career paths, public figures, and this has people on the edge”, he says. 

The activist also says that people are dying in the hospital, but since no official data is provided it is impossible to know the actual number of deaths. Furthermore, he assures that no Covid-19 tests are being carried out, so the real impact of the disease is unknown, except for what is seen on the streets. 

Ocampo explains that the situation in the city is very different from that in the indigenous and campesino communities: in the city, the lack of jobs and “normal life” is evident, while in the countryside people are feeding themselves with tubers. Others also engage in small-scale fishing. 

In the indigenous communities there are restrictions on travels to the city, and others fear going to the Region’s capital because they could catch Covid-19 and then have to undertake a journey of several hours to reach the Nuevo Amanecer Hospital, where, according to local sources there are only two respirators available. 

At the end of 2019, Daniel Ortega’s regime announced the construction of a new hospital in Bilwi, with an investment of US$82 million to be covered with own resources and those of The Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). It would be the third largest hospital in Nicaragua according to government propaganda. However, since his return to power in 2007, Ortega’s government has also promised better roads and the construction of a new local dock to replace the old one, which has only been repaired and reinforced. 

Ocampo warns that if there are too many infections in the communities the situation would be critical, considering that among the indigenous population there is not much information about prevention, use of masks, hand washing, and even social distancing. Although some communities have decreed self-quarantine, the lack of basic services complicates their conditions. 

“In the communities if someone dies of Covid-19, no one finds out. They hold a wake and bury them after 24 hours”, says Ocampo.