MEXICO CITY – Other countries have lured retired doctors, pushed medical students to the front lines and supported medical staff exhausted by COVID-19 cases, but in Nicaragua, doctors have been harassed, threatened and sometimes coerced in exile for having questioned the official management of the pandemic.
Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady, accused doctors of ‘health terrorism’ and of spreading ‘false perspectives and news’ by reporting that COVID-19 was much more widespread than authorities recognize .
Groups of doctors are reporting much higher numbers than the government of viral infections and deaths from COVID-19, the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus. And they criticized the Sandinista government for encouraging mass rallies.
Dr Leonel Argüello, a doctor who is also one of the country’s foremost epidemiologists, recently fled Nicaragua after months of harassment and threats.
Argüello keeps its own tally of medical workers who have died from COVID-19 and accuses the government of creating a false sense of security that has cost lives.
“We are not working to remove a government,” said an undisclosed country’s doctor. “We are not working to be an opposition party. We work as we would with any patient to find a way to save their life.
Argüello, who worked for the health ministry during the first Sandinista government, said he ignored death threats, but said he felt a change when Murillo spoke publicly about doctors inventing things and said clearly indicated that the government would not continue to tolerate it.
“My role as a health educator was going to be lost if they imprisoned me or silenced me,” he said.
In comments that appeared to be directed at Argüello and other exiled doctors, Murillo said this month that “to do terrorism with health subjects is a sacrilege, it is a crime”.
Questions sent to the vice president about the alleged bullying of doctors prompted a thank-you note from Murillo, but no further comment.
It is not known how many doctors left the country during the pandemic, but the Associated Press has identified at least five who left because they felt intimidated by the government. “I think it’s a decision you make when you feel your physical safety is in jeopardy,” Argüello said.
In early July, Murillo spoke of “fake doctors” giving “false predictions and false polls” about the pandemic. “In life everything has a cost and if we cause harm, harm will happen to us, we should not be exposing ourselves to the consequences,” she told national television.
At that time, urologist José Luis Borgen was called to the Ministry of Health and ordered to stop providing statistics on the pandemic different from the official figures. He said he knows about a dozen doctors who have been summoned and have told him the same thing.
“They accuse us of giving false news and generating fear in the population,” Borgen said. A doctor has been told his medical license could be revoked and he could be charged with spreading false information. Borgen said he believed the doctor was no longer in Nicaragua.
Borgen was also summoned to the attorney general’s office over his treatment of an opposition politician wanted by the authorities. He said he viewed this as an attempt to intimidate.
“It’s all connected,” Borgen said. “When the vice president says something, the rest of the institutions do it.”
Borgen, who has himself been sick with COVID-19, said he did not know of any doctors whose licenses had been revoked or been charged with a crime, but that “many” had left the country fearing it does not happen.
The government had already shown its willingness to exert political pressure on health workers. When large street protests erupted in April 2018 in response to a government change in the social security system, the government told public health officials not to treat injured protesters.
Those who disobeyed – around 400, according to Argüello – were fired. Others went into exile at this time.
The pressure continued during the pandemic.
From the time Nicaragua started seeing its first coronavirus infections in March 2020, talking about the pandemic was taboo. Wearing a surgical mask in hospitals has become a political statement as administrators have banned hospital staff from donning them. The masks could make patients nervous, they said.
Relatives and health workers have reported secret “express burials” of COVID-19 victims by staff in white protective gear under cover of darkness. La Prensa, Nicaragua’s leading newspaper, reported in July that a funeral home in Managua had performed 14 such burials in 10 days with patients from three hospitals in the capital.
Nicaraguan health workers have also been hit hard by the pandemic. At least 160 medical staff have died from COVID-19, statistics the government has not shared, according to Argüello. Borgen said on Friday that 88 of those who died were doctors.
A doctor in the northwestern town of Chinandega said doctors were unable to get coronavirus tests outside of public hospitals – and even these are strictly limited.
“They get it checked out and if anyone in a given case is positive, they treat it discreetly,” the doctor said. “They want to sell an image that the virus is under control. “
But she said her region was seeing a heavy caseload, the local hospital ward dedicated to COVID-19 cases was full, and a colleague who had cared for patients day and night died of the disease a long time ago. month. She too spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
Dr Eddy Valverde fled into exile in late June, weeks after the government began arresting prominent opposition leaders. He had faced months of threats and attacks on social media for speaking publicly about the government’s handling of the pandemic. Journalists from government agencies had asked for his medical license to be revoked.
He said independent doctors were the only reliable source of data on the pandemic. He is a member of the Nicaraguan Medical Unit, made up of doctors licensed from public hospitals in 2018.
This organization, which offered free consultations to patients with COVID-19, was forced to close its offices in July after months of harassment by the police.
Another organization made up of activists and independent doctors called the Citizen Observatory reported 20 times the number of deaths from COVID-19 – more than 4,000 – than the official government number.
The government has reported one death from COVID-19 per week for the past nine months.
The Observatory called on Nicaraguans to join a “voluntary quarantine” during the month of September in the face of “the peak of the pandemic and the collapse of the health system”.
Nicaragua began limited vaccinations in April, and the nation of some 6.5 million people vaccinated more than 520,000 adults over the age of 45, although it is not clear whether they received two or more. only one. The president said on Thursday the government would start vaccinating people over 30 years old later this month.
Rather than imposing restrictions to slow the spread of the virus, the government has encouraged mass gatherings and the maintenance of normal life despite warnings from local doctors and the Pan American Health Organization.
Argüello believes the government’s attempts to muzzle him and other health workers are aimed at giving the public a false sense of security.
“Those who started speaking out were fired and it was the signal for everyone to stay silent in the public sector,” Argüello said.
Leaving Nicaragua was a difficult decision, said Argüello. In most cases, a doctor cannot quickly resume practice in another country. Argüello still treats 15 patients on home oxygen remotely.
“The apparent normalcy being sold is a false sense of security that prevents people from taking action to protect themselves,” Argüello said.
“We are getting worse every day, the numbers are increasing,” said Argüello. “Hospitals are full and everyone knows a relative or neighbor with COVID. “