Written by Julio Letona, Project Director
Sitting in the courtyard of the organization, I take a moment to think to myself about how any doubt I have about the normal functioning of my brain is possibly due to the constant use of masks. Similar to the crucial way a cornfield calls for rain, it is necessary that we reflect on the situation despite its overwhelming nature. This is not some meaningless reflection. It is, instead, a reflection towards the situation we are currently living in and towards our country, Guatemala.
It has been more than 500 days since the pandemic began impacting the country, and it is constantly becoming more dangerous, tragic and worrisome. In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly connected all of Guatemala’s problems to a single point. In reality, it is difficult to imagine how every aspect is involved and the way it has come to highlight each problem that we experience- those from our past and our present, stemming from the structure of our country. Nonetheless, I do have to say that this pandemic has brought some positivity. This reflection serves as a concrete example of a first step towards recognizing and analyzing the state of the country. It is like getting drenched with a bucket of cold water- it wakes our senses, forcing us to realize that we cannot live in this state, but only survive.
To put into context how the pandemic has amassed many problems, we can think about varying viewpoints. Let us begin with the healthcare system. There is a historical and structural problem, when it comes to health in Guatemala, due to the lack of organization upon its formation. A continued lack of will and determination, in addition to the discrimination largely geared towards indigenous communities, caused it to begin breaking down. There has, subsequently, been a scarcity of resources linked to excessive corruption. With this structure in mind, it can be stated that Guatemala was not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. The moment COVID-19 impacted our country, the public had very low healthcare coverage- only 35% at the national level. The system was dealing with a resource shortage, along with overpopulated hospitals, due to disorganization and non-existent first-level care. This level, which is dedicated to health prevention, upholds a definitive role within the structure and, we dare to state, is the main reason for the mess that is the healthcare system. With this, Guatemala was never relieved of the pandemic. At first, the government established basic sanitary practices including hand washing, mask usage and social distancing- that was it. Although the government used “emergency” loans and requested international support, from left to right, there was no concise, convincing and real plan to face the crisis. The indigenous communities, who are left forgotten by the government, stay the same. Within the rural areas, we have internalized and come to accept that we are our own and should unite our focus to face these distinct problems.
The time had eventually come to receive vaccinations. In Guatemala, conversations surrounding the vaccine began towards the end of 2020. At this point, it was established that there was a millionaire loan available to purchase and acquire the vaccines, which were said to arrive in January of the next year. May came around and the government had yet to provide an explanation regarding the vaccine’s whereabouts and much less the money. By now, the continuous cycle of corruption had already taken hold of the situation. We witnessed other countries progress and take efforts towards the pandemic as leaders explained, “We are vaccinating 10,000 people daily, we must raise that number to have the best results…” At the same time, the president of our country appeared on national television explaining how the major way to continue “facing” the pandemic was: “we continue to not allow the consumption of alcoholic beverages after six in the afternoon.” It seemed like a joke, but sadly and heartbreakingly, it is reality.
Guatemala is currently placed as the third to last country in Latin America in the advances towards vaccinations with a percentage of the total population being only at 0.98% according to the data presented and updates on July 9, 2021 from Our World in Data.
While the mystery of the money and vaccine’s whereabouts continued, the government began receiving vaccine donations from other countries, which commences the National Vaccination Plan of COVID-19. The vaccination plan is made up of various phases, each with its own objective. The phases are as follows. Phase 1 includes all frontline health workers, with the main objective being to maintain the integrity of the health system. Phase 2 includes adults 50 years or older and adults over the age of 18 with chronic diseases. The main objective of Phase 2 is to diminish mortality and severe sickness. Phase 3 includes state workers from all other ministries like education, justice and security, with the main objective being to diminish any socioeconomic impact and protect the continuation of basic services. Phase 4 includes adults from the age of 40-49 and those from 18 to 39 wishing to diminish the burden of the disease.
This is the plan that the government announced almost a year after the start of the pandemic. It seemed well structured, concise and consistent. Unfortunately, in reality, it was the opposite. The reason that the execution of a very clear plan fails is due to features of the public health system such as fragmentation, disorganization, lack of resources, unwillingness, discrimination and corruption. In a certain way, the implementation of the vaccines within the country by the government was like a “chinchilete” of piñatas. It was as if the government had taken the vaccines and tossed them into the air. Just as it is an individual’s luck as to whether they receive a piece of candy from the piñata, receiving a vaccination was similarly based on individual luck. Guatemala paid Q711 million for 19.4 million COVID-19 vaccines, but has only received 407,600 doses. The vaccines, which are part of another problem, highlight the mass of problems within the country. For example, many Guatemalans immigrated to Mexico just to receive the vaccine. The first vaccination centers that began distribution of donated vaccines were overcrowded and overloaded, replicating the chaos of the health system over and over again. This did not happen in rural areas. When the first phase was implemented, in our region, there was resounding silence. Then, the second phase came where information was conveyed in drops- little at a time and nothing at once. Only one person was allied to get vaccinated within the first week of the second phase. The reason? There are too many that are too difficult to describe. Some reasons are seen in other vaccination programs, such as those for rubella or chickenpox. They include low coverage, the lack of resources, the unwillingness from people that cannot comprehend and the unwillingness from those that express little desire to understand the overwhelmed feelings of those in Mayan communities.
In reality, there are more than 3,000 new cases being reported every day in the country. This does not take all of the unreported cases into account, which would result in a much higher number. The under-reporting of cases is a phenomenon that emerges from the fragility of the public health system. We consider ourselves of “low registration” since rural areas are neglected from government initiatives- a methodical and treacherous idea. In other articles, we have declared that human life is not valued within this country. Our organization is not a healthcare center for COVID-19 directly; but, the lack of services and amount of disorder necessitated that our healthcare center be at the front lines of the pandemic. We say “necessity” because although we would love to be able to address the COVID-19 crisis within our region, the magnitude of it all exceeds us. Therefore, we do the best we possibly can to optimize our resources and tend to cases of COVID-19 within the communities by restructuring. Although with our limited staff, we have recorded more than 600 cases of COVID-19 that have been treated throughout the months of May, June, and July of this year. We want to ensure that this pattern of recording and treating such cases continues.
It has been a challenge to face, deal with, manage, and mitigate the pandemic from the front lines. We have experienced many stories and obstacles, much of which are related to the fragility of the healthcare system; however, with many years of work with indigenous communities, we have found alternative models of care that are specific for each situation. We have always mentioned that the organization’s sense of philosophy and purpose of action has become more palpable and evident with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. With total certainty, this has made us understand the relevance of the creation of inclusive community health care models where communities are both participants and creators in the process. The construction of these health care models that we initiated years ago today affirm their own functionality and sustainability. This is the result of the founder’s premise of the organization, which states “when you want, you can.” These models embrace fundamental aspects such as confidence, respect, understanding, humanism, and love, which play a crucial role in development; unfortunately, the government has neglected this development nonetheless.
Transitioning the topic from health to social, Guatemala is currently going through a government crisis, and the government’s response to the pandemic has made the crisis more evident. A possible trigger to this crisis has been the unknown source of where the government has purchased vaccines, and the fatal daily excessive corruption, even though it is not something new for us. Before the pandemic, we faced death due to daily malnutrition and gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, and now the complications that are associated with COVID-19 add to this list. Alarmingly, the insecurity during the pandemic has also caused the number of deaths to increase. This has caused a social crisis that has unleashed a series of social demonstrations throughout the country that have the ultimate goal of demanding the resignation of the President of Guatemala and the reorganization of the government.
Since the founding of our community organization, we have joined the social clamor, and this time is no exception. No matter how many governments Guatemala has had throughout the years, the problems that we face are mostly the same, and we believe that the social struggle is necessary, and even more so during the crisis. For them, we extend our voices to demand justice, humanity, respect, love, harmony, responsibility, and peace. From this courtyard where I write, I try to unite the communities’ voices and launch them into the sky on paper so they can fly and echo in every corner of our country. We refuse to normalize the injustice, we refuse the cruelty, and we refuse to wake up dead in a casket at the morgue. We instead open up to justice, resilience, love, and the ability for indigenous communities to change the country.