Carlos Herrera

“I don’t even know if that was him in the coffin… the doctor just said to bury him as soon as possible”, says a Nicaraguan woman who recently lost her father to what she suspects was Covid-19, but which was officially ruled as atypical pneumonia. She reported that just a few hours after he died, the funeral home workers —draped in hazmat suits from head to toe— put his box in the back of a pick-up truck and buried him in the middle of the night. Similar irregularities have been on the rise around the nation, with cases of atypical pneumonia strangely plaguing many hospitals.

This dystopian account echoes the growing worries of the Nicaraguan populace, a country that has been engulfed in social turmoil since 2018 and which now faces its latest enemy, the Coronavirus. However, what began as rumors shared in corner shops and neighborhood meetings, have been all but confirmed by the country’s authoritarian regime. They are known in Nicaragua as entierros exprés, or express burials; somber caravans that cut out the middle-man from the stages of grief —the late person’s family. Instead, trucks from the Ministry of Health, filled with coffins and leaving hospitals at every hour of the night while escorted by the police, have become a common sight for residents of the surrounding areas.

“On average, we do about 60 burials a month… last May we had over 300”, says the director of a private cemetery in Managua, the capital. His assertion paints the stark reality of a country that has not declared a quarantine in the face of the worst global pandemic since 1918. The Observatorio Ciudadano, a non-governmental watchdog that has taken on the task of recording Covid-19 infections, reports over 5,000 cases and more than 1,100 deaths. However, these frightening figures are unheard of in the halls of the National Assembly. Instead, the ruling party’s MPs only repeat the government-approved numbers, which currently stand at just over 1,100 cases and 46 deaths.

The governing couple has driven this misinformation campaign. Rosario Murillo, the first lady, Vice-President (yes, Vice-President), and head of the country’s Propaganda Communication Council has labeled the mounting evidence of these express burials as fake news. Nevertheless, this has not prevented dozens of videos clearly showing national license plates and well-known public spaces to spread like wildfire in social media. The main opposition group, Coalición Nacional, has taken the situation more seriously by denouncing that the regime’s denial of the public health crisis is another instance of their crimes against humanity. Perhaps more distressingly, a group of 34 medical associations recently released a communiqué calling on the general population to follow a voluntary quarantine, citing the imminent collapse of the healthcare sector. 

These express burials, the latest case of human rights violations by the Nicaraguan government, do not exist in a vacuum. The regime has also rejected the stringent measures taken by most regions of the globe and refused to declare a quarantine, adopting the widely criticized “Swedish model” instead. Public schools remain open, as do most businesses in the more impoverished commercial zones of the country. Also, the government has not only allowed massive public events, it has organized them. One of such is the harrowingly-named “Love in Times of COVID-19” march. Moreover, they have been accused of politicking the supply of Covid-19 tests, centralizing their use, and banning private practices from administering them. This grim picture shows the context of the pandemic in the second poorest country of the Western hemisphere. Whatever the outcome may be, one thing is clear, the Coronavirus has found a strange ally in the government of Nicaragua, and the aforementioned irregularities will likely become the norm rather than the exception.