Guatemala special feature: COVID-19 update

Jurg Widmer Guatemala COVID-19

COVID-19 is hitting Guatemala at every level, from the Government and cabinet to the rural population. On 20 September 2020, President Alejandro Giammattei announced he tested positive with COVID-19. The Government continues to work, according to the President, and it appears he is now recovering.

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: a COVID-19 update

President Giammattei announced his diagnosis to a local radio station called Sonora. At the time he said while he had typical symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever and aches, he underwent treatment at the Centre Medico Militar in Guatemala City.

Having assured the Guatemalan people that he was isolating himself from any public activity, he went on to say that the cabinet is now working remotely. His announcement came on the very same day that the country reopened its borders with Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize. The borders were closed on 16 March 2020, and international airports shut down. Mundo Maya International Airport in the north of Guatemala also reopened on 20 September.

New travel protocols were announced at the same time by the Guatemalan Ministry of Health. These include that anyone over the age of 10 wanting to enter Guatemala must present a negative test result. The COVID-19 test result can’t be more than 72 hours old to be valid. If a traveller from overseas appears to have symptoms when they arrive in Guatemala, then they will be denied entry. If they’re a domestic traveller, they will be isolated. All ports of entry into Guatemala also have mandatory policies for face masks, hand santisation and social distancing.

How many cases of COVID-19 are there in Guatemala?

Total cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala as of 8 October 2020 stand at 95,704, with 3,335 deaths. Many of these are in rural regions of Guatemala and affecting indigenous Guatemalans.

More than 6.5 million Guatemalans identify as indigenous, and around 79% of these people live in poverty. This is roughly twice as many as the non-indigenous Guatemalan population. In addition, more than a third of indigenous people in Guatemala deal with food insecurity. Despite these figures, less than half of Government expenditure goes on this section of the population.

Sadly, indigenous children in Guatemala are still more likely to die of malnutrition and poverty than of COVID-19. This is how it has been for decades, and as yet, COVID-19 is not overtaking these systemic problems when it comes to life expectancy in these areas.

International efforts to help Guatemala fight COVID-19

There are efforts from the international community to assist the fight against COVID-19 in Guatemala, however. Funding from the Japanese Government and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) resulted in a donation of 5,000 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment). This is part of an ongoing initiative to support the COVID-19 response across the Americas.

Japan has reiterated its support for Guatemala and its people on numerous occasions. The PPE goes to frontline health workers in rural areas of Guatemala, where the more vulnerable groups are doing their best to deal with the pandemic. Donated PPE equipment includes body bags, waste bags, goggles, latex gloves, surgical masks, gowns and N95 respirators. So far, Japan has contributed almost £2 million worth of COVID-19 support in Guatemala, Venezuala, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Brazil.

The British Ambassador to Guatemala Nick Whittingham announced earlier during the pandemic that pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is donating PPE and COVID-19 tests to the Guatemalan Government.

These initiatives are testament to the support the country needs to deal with this crisis. Aid groups continue to be concerned that Guatemala will be disproportionately damaged by COVID-19 due to the high poverty levels I mentioned earlier.

Situation in Guatemala is complex

According to Oxfam’s country head Ana Maria Mendez Libby, the situation caused by the pandemic in Guatemala is particularly complex. She points to the long-term droughts in rural areas of the country that are exacerbated by climate change. This along with rising levels of poverty cause serious issues.

More than half of the country’s population does not live in urban areas. And in the rural regions of Guatemala, there is an extremely fragile social protection ecosystem. Access to water, sanitation, healthcare and food was already difficult pre-COVID.

We can also add on to Guatemala’s issues the problem of North America effectively cutting off asylum seekers in mid-2019. Guatemala has to, by international law, allow deportees back into the country, as well as any from Salvador and Honduras. This perfect storm of social issues means COVID-19 is more dangerous in Guatemala than in some other countries. And even more so for the indigenous population, which is made up from a range of groups including the Tzutujil, Xinca, Kaqchikel and Garifuna people.

Charities delivering aid in Guatemala are coming up with all kinds of innovative distribution models in an effort to keep the virus down. For example, charities like Oxfam are transferring money directly to local people’s phones so that they can collect food and medicine for the community. This is completely different to the usual method of sending aid workers into the country.

COVID-19 Government assistance is helping those who live in cities, but it’s clear that more effort must be made in rural areas to see the people through this crisis.