How is COVID-19 affecting Guatemala and its people?

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala

This month’s Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala blog moves away from the beauty and fascination of this country with a focus on COVID-19.

Global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is actively helping the health system in Guatemala, according to the UK Government. British Ambassador Nick Whittingham says that the company is donating quick COVID-19 tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies to the Government in Guatemala.

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala – focus on COVID-19

The AstraZeneca donation includes 500 tests, 3,000 pairs of latex gloves, 400 gowns and 1,500 KN95 masks. And it’s testament to the help that Guatemala needs during this health crisis. Aid groups say that they are concerned that Guatemala will be hit disproportionately hard by the virus, as the population already struggles with poverty and drought.

Cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala have reached 29,742, with 1,244 deaths (as at 14 July 2020). At the height of the pandemic, lockdown meant that many Guatemalan people lost their jobs or couldn’t do their normal informal work. And while this is the case in many countries around the world, the situation in Guatemala is “complex” according to Oxfam’s country head Ana Maria Méndez Libby.

She says that due to long-term droughts in rural areas driven by climate change, there is a rising level of poverty. Around half the population lives out of the cities and in the rural part of Guatemala, and they’re dealing with what she says is a “fragile social protection system, where health, food security, water and sanitation are extremely bad.”

Challenges in rural areas of Guatemala

Over recent years there have been relatively high levels of emigration to the United States, particularly among women and children. However, the US law of July 2019 that bars Central Americans from seeking asylum have cut this option off for Guatemalan asylum seekers. On top of this, Guatemala is obliged by law to welcome back any deportees from the US not only from the country itself, but also any from Honduras and Salvador.

The World Bank says that Guatemala is a middle-income country. However, it also has the second highest level of poverty among South American countries. This is mostly confined to the indigenous communities in the country, from a range of groups including the Garifuna, Kaqchikel Maya, Xinca and the Tzutujil people. All of these challenges make the impact of COVID-19 potentially more difficult to handle.

More help needed for indigenous population of Guatemala

Aid charities such as Oxfam are using innovative distribution models to keep the spread of the virus down. For example, rather than sending in aid workers to distribute medicine and food, charities are transferring money to local people’s phones so they can collect and distribute it without external assistance.

Guatemalan lockdown measures include much stricter stay-at-home orders than countries such as the US and the UK. These include curfews overnight, compulsory face masks and no public transport on the roads at all. Fines are being issued ranging from $914 to $16,300 to anyone breaking these rules.

And while COVID-19 assistance from the Government is working in the biggest cities, it’s rural areas that need more aid.