QCOSTARICA – “I’m looking for oxygen because I have two sick relatives” with COVID, says Francisco Montenegro, one of the hundreds of Nicaraguans who tries to refill an oxygen cylinder in Managua to care for a loved one, in a country that has never quarantined due to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately we are in a situation in the country where you do not even know where you can get the contagion,” lamented Montenegro, who attributes the outbreak to “crowds of people.”
“In the streets, on the buses, wherever there are many people who do not wear masks,” he reproached.
Oxygen tanks, which have been in short supply in the country for weeks, are bought, rented and refilled in private centers by people who, according to their economic capacity, treat patients at home.
Long lines of cars are formed in the sales centers. Nicaragua’s La Prensa, the only remaining non-government newspaper, reported from the early hours of this Saturday, September 18, dozens of people have been waiting in long lines in front of the Productos del Aire company in search of medicinal oxygen to treat severe covid-19 patients.
Although the distributor has not officially confirmed the reopening of service to the general public, during this week the presence of people on the outskirts of the premises has persisted.
However, according to the government of Daniel Ortega, there is no collapse in public hospitals. His opponents claim otherwise.
Nicaragua is experiencing, like some of its Central American neighbors, a rebound in COVID-19 infections.
But, unlike other nations in the region, Nicaragua never decreed quarantines to contain the virus. On the contrary, it has promoted recreational activities that pushed thousands, especially young people, to relax and go out to parties.
President Daniel Ortega argues that if Nicaragua, a country of 6.5 million inhabitants, “stops working (…) it will starve.” According to the Central Bank of Nicaragua, just over 1 million people depend on informal work to survive.
The official numbers by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health (Minsa) report 13,206 cases Covid-19 and 201 deaths related since the pandemic began, and officially recognizes in recent weeks an increase in infections.
But, the Observatorio Ciudadano, a network of independent doctors, report there are at least 25,150 suspected cases, of which more than 4,500 ended in deaths with symptoms associated with COVID-19.
In the last week alone, Minsa reported 675 positive cases, however, the Observatorio Ciudadano1,865 cases and 329 deaths attributable to the virus.
The government does accept these figures and accuses this organization of promoting “pandemic terrorism.”
Waiting for the miracle
Some, like driver Julio Larios, who lives in the western city of León, traveled 180 km by vehicle to the capital to get oxygen, but after standing in a long line he was informed that they had run out.
“It’s time to stand in line and wait for the miracle today, to see if we can fill that tank,” he said desperately.
Tania was also unlucky. “I’m looking for oxygen for my sister, she is improving, but she needs oxygen and we are all here, fighting,” she told AFP.
Despite the discretion with which the authorities handle the pandemic, information on the sick and dead from COVID flows on social media, through family, friends or neighbors. Everyone knows someone who died of the pandemic or is in serious condition at home or in the hospital.
The cases have “risen (…), the situation is very critical and very delicate, I don’t know, then, if they want to minimize it. But yes, it is very ugly here,” said Erika – who preferred not to give her last name -, in one of the oxygen sales lines. She said that she lost two family members to the virus.
“I do not want to open up social networks again in the face of so many condolences,” human rights defender Yonarqui Martínez said on Twitter.
The Catholic Church has said that at least 16 priests have died from the virus, mostly this year.
On Wednesday, PAHO urged Nicaraguans to avoid crowds and although it pointed out that it lacks “official data to allow an adequate analysis, there are other sources that show that there is a high occupancy of health services, particularly hospitals”.
“There are also reports of high transmission, that is, an increase in the number of cases and also an increase in children and adolescents, both in hospitalizations, reports of suspected and confirmed cases and also deaths,” said the director of Health Emergencies of the OPS, Ciro Ugarte.
Given the rebound in infections, and denial of the central government of a health crisis, health authorities have redoubled calls to citizens to “respect the prevention measures” and go to hospitals in case of symptoms.
It also accelerated the vaccination process, which until August had covered only 523,000 Nicaraguans. By October, the government hopes to immunize 32% of the population over 30 with doses of AstraZeneca and the Russian Sputnik V.
Meanwhile, health brigades visit homes in neighborhoods and communities to detect suspected cases.
Doctors from the Observatorio Ciudadano, for their part, have urged citizens to carry out a “voluntary quarantine” to contain “the pandemic peak”, avoid the “collapse of hospitals” and save lives.