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Citizens Work To Expose COVID's Real Toll In Nicaragua As Leaders Claim Success


Nicaragua insists it's tackling the pandemic better than any of its neighbors, but some health officials and critics say the government is hiding the true toll. As part of our reporting on disinformation around the world, NPR's Carrie Kahn spoke with a grassroots group that wants the true numbers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Nicaraguan TV often touts the government's claims of success in the fight against COVID-19, like in this recent report from a vaccination center.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Thank God and the wisdom of our president for his handling of the pandemic," says an elderly woman holding her just vaccinated arm. But contrary to the narrative playing out on state TV, Nicaragua has been hit hard. Last spring, a devastating wave of infection struck the country. Hospitals were overrun, and deaths were mounting so fast that burials nickname express funerals were routinely done in the dead of night and out of sight. President Daniel Ortega has long downplayed the virus, denouncing lockdowns and mask mandates. Early in the pandemic, health care workers were even barred from wearing protective gear so as not to alarm the public.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

KAHN: The International Workers' Anthem played at this year's May Day ceremony where Ortega made rare mention of the pandemic, placing blame elsewhere.



KAHN: "The most terrible virus that has infected our planet is the virus of capitalism," says the 75-year-old leader. He blasted rich countries for hoarding vaccines. Only about 2% of Nicaragua's population has been vaccinated with donated doses. On paper, Nicaragua has done amazingly well controlling the pandemic. Its health ministry reports about 7,000 cumulative cases and fewer than 200 deaths. All of Nicaragua's neighbors, even those with smaller populations, have death tolls in the thousands. A new group, which calls themselves the Citizens' Observatory, accuses the government of a deliberate undercount.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The government has been hiding information, says the spokesperson for the group, made up of health workers and community activists. They say they've counted at least 15,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) What we did was step up and fill this vacuum of information because we believe that only with solid information can the public be protected and lives saved.

KAHN: NPR has agreed to distort the spokesperson's voice and not ID them by name as they fear retaliation from the Ortega government, which has stepped up detention and attacks against opponents in recent years. The group's numbers are compiled by a network of people across the country who take great risk to confirm cases, sharing health records and death certificates with the group, says the spokesperson.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) But I have to say that every day, they are less and less willing to work with us because of the repression those in the health sector face for speaking out.

KAHN: Last summer, after more than 700 health workers signed a letter urging the Ortega regime to do more to combat the virus, officials began firing health workers. Among them was Dr. Carlos Quant, an infectious disease specialist who worked at the public hospital, Manolo Morales, for 20 years.

CARLOS QUANT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I wasn't even allowed to get my belongings from my office before being escorted out the door," he says.

QUANT: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Official figures have no credibility," he says, "but the Citizens' Observatory does."


KAHN: At a busy Managua bus stop, a 25-year-old restaurant worker says it's tough getting good information on the pandemic. He would only give his last name, Valesquez, for fear of reprisals for speaking out against the government.

VALESQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I don't believe the government. They don't give out exact numbers, just vague proclamations," he says. Since last October, the government has said they've only registered one COVID death per week. NPR's requests for interviews with the Minister of Health and the vice president, who is also the government's spokeswoman, went unanswered. The spokesperson for the Citizens' Observatory says the group will continue publishing as long as they can.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's important to find ways to get word out about the pandemic. It's the only way we can protect and take care of ourselves," they say. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on