Other countries have lured doctors out of retirement, pushed medical students to the front lines and buoyed medical personnel exhausted by Covid-19 cases, but in Nicaragua doctors have been harassed, threatened and sometimes forced into exile for questioning official handling of the pandemic.
Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is also the first lady, has accused doctors of health terrorism and of spreading false outlooks and news by reporting that Covid-19 has been far more widespread than officials acknowledge. As international health organisations warn of increasing infections in Nicaragua and independent Nicaraguan doctors call for a voluntary quarantine to slow the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, the government has made clear that comments out of step with its line are unacceptable as President Daniel Ortega seeks a fourth consecutive term.
Groups of doctors report much higher numbers than the government of virus infections and deaths from Covid-19, the disease that can be caused by the coronavirus. And they have criticized the Sandinista government for promoting mass gatherings. Dr Leonel Arguello, a physician who also is one of the country’s most prominent epidemiologists, recently fled Nicaragua after months of harassment and threats.
Arguello maintains his own tally of medical workers who died of 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, the doctor said from an undisclosed country. We are not working to be an opposition party. We are working like we would work with any patient to look for a way to save his life.
Arguello, who worked for the Health Ministry during the first Sandinista government, said he had ignored death threats, but said he sensed a change when Murillo spoke publicly about doctors inventing things and made clear the government would not continue tolerating 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 directed toward Arg ello and other doctors in exile, Murillo said this month that to carry out terrorism with health topics is a sacrilege, it is a crime. Questions sent to the Vice President about the alleged intimidation of doctors elicited a thank you note from Murillo, but no additional comment. It is not clear how many doctors have left the country during the pandemic, but ‘The Associated Press’ identified at least five who left because they felt government intimidation. I think it’s a decision you take when you feel your physical safety is compromised, Arguello said.
The government had already shown willingness to put political pressure on health workers. When big street protests broke out in April 2018 in response to a government change to the social security system, the government told public health workers to not treat injured protesters. Those who disobeyed some 400, according to Arg ello were fired. Others went into exile at that time. The pressure has continued during the pandemic.