As Nicaraguans mark the two-year anniversary of the popular protest movement that began on April 18, 2018, the Ortega regime continues to target civil society organizations, independent media, pro-democracy activists and citizens alike. In addition, the government is manifestly failing to protect Nicaraguans from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ortega’s authoritarian tendencies have left institutions incapable of responding to citizen needs during this crisis.

Mass protests first broke out in April 2018 over the Nicaraguan government’s failure to stop wildfires in the Indio Maiz National Reserve, the unilateral reduction in social security benefits and widespread opposition to President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo.

Ortega’s administration responded viciously: the National Police and irregular pro-government forces assaulted protestors, arbitrarily jailed citizens and fired doctors who treated injured protestors. Murillo, who often becomes the de facto leader when her husband disappears from public view, launched a public campaign of “National Reconciliation” that downplayed the government’s role in the violence and proclaimed “all is normal”  in Nicaragua. This repression continues today, with pro-government forces muzzling independent media and repressing non-violent protestors, while the pro-Ortega National Assembly strips civil society organizations of their legal status.

The COVID-19 pandemic has trained an even harsher spotlight upon Ortega’s failure to govern. Nicaragua remains the only Central American country without travel restrictions or public gathering bans. The government has refused to increase COVID-19 testing even after receiving 26,000 test kits from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI). On April 15, after 34 days without making any public appearances, Ortega held a press conference to excuse the government’s failure to address COVID-19, casting their inaction as a component of a “contextualized” national strategy, which he has yet to announce.

This response to COVID-19 is consistent with the regime’s approach to governance since the April 18th protests: Claim everything is normal, ignore dissenting voices and refuse to address citizens’ needs. Ortega and Murillo have not only ignored recommendations from international health agencies, Murillo has encouraged citizens to carry on with their normal lives and actively downplayed COVID-19. Ignoring basic public health guidance, she’s even organized mass marches entitled “Love in the Times of COVID-19” rather than encouraging social distancing measures.

This disregard for public safety measures poses a deadly threat to Nicaraguans and the region, as Nicaragua remains the only Central American country without travel restrictions or gathering bans. Yet Ortega is clearly aware of the danger COVID-19 poses – his own family has purchased sanitation supplies in bulk after the Health Ministry projected that 32,500 Nicaraguans will contract COVID-19 over the next six months. By refusing to adopt international health practices and mobilize an effective public health response, Ortega is leaving Nicaraguans to fend for themselves. In addition to actively misleading Nicaraguans, years of silencing dissenting voices and restricting independent media have left citizens with fewer resources to properly inform themselves. A vibrant civil society, independent media and citizen-centered government are critical to leading an effective response to this unprecedented public health crisis.

International actors such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States and regional governments must implore Ortega to take action to contain the virus and protect Nicaraguans. With external pressure, Ortega may act rather than allow COVID-19 to spread in Nicaragua. Ortega remains unilaterally capable of organizing a response to COVID-19 amidst a non-existent opposition and weakened civil society.

Despite the risks, Nicaraguan civil society groups are stepping up to the challenge, developing joint responses to COVID-19 and providing citizens with health recommendations to contain the virus. Yet, no single entity alone can overcome COVID-19 – and the government’s inaction will have dire consequences for Nicaragua, regardless of Ortega and Murillo’s false professions of “love.”

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