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As Pandemic Pummels Guatemala, Government Stalls

Jeff Abbott

 
 

Full hospital beds. Striking medical workers. Millions of unadministered vaccines. These are just some of the reasons Guatemalans are calling for the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei nearly one year after Guatemala re-opened. The lockdown in Guatemala lasted only a few short months, from March to September 2020. 

The number of Covid cases has exploded recently, averaging around 2000 new recorded infections per day, with 2,963 cases being registered on July 13. At the same time the number of tests being conducted has plummeted. 

Faced with the increased calls for his resignation, President Giammattei announced that he would declare a State of Emergency to quell protests, referring to them as “illegal” and suggesting the people protesting were mentally unstable. The declaration was officially issued on July 13.

“The president is indifferent,” Lucrecia Hernández Mack, a current congressional representative with the centrist Semilla party and former Health Minister, told El Faro English. “He’s making fools of [the country] internationally. He’s washing his hands [of the crisis].”

On July 9, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei held a national broadcast to blame the population for the rise in cases and to announce that the country would not be closing, adding that the economy is doing well. He also stated that the country would vaccinate one million people in the following week. The government missed that mark.

Covid-19 infections peaked in Guatemala in recent weeks as one in twenty people have been vaccinated, though President Giammattei says he has no plans to launch a second nationwide economic shutdown.
 
Covid-19 infections peaked in Guatemala in recent weeks as one in twenty people have been vaccinated, though President Giammattei says he has no plans to launch a second nationwide economic shutdown.

By July 13, Guatemala had registered 322,120 cases of covid-19 since the virus was first identified in the country in March 2020, resulting in 9,756 officially recognized deaths. The latest peak comes as Guatemala’s Health Ministry has failed to renew contracts for medical personnel at the temporary hospital in Guatemala City and medical workers in Sololá are on strike due to poor working conditions and lack of facilities for vaccines. Testing and the limited vaccination campaign remain concentrated in urban centers, and limited to the elderly.

“We are worried to see that we are not better than a year before,” Karin Slowing, an analyst with the independent Laboratorio de Datos GT, told El Faro English. “We are in an aggravated scenario where the Health Ministry was not prepared to confront the situation with sufficient testing, with good management of the vaccines, and with strengthening the network of services to provide medical attention to the most grave patients. None of this has been accomplished.” 

Increasingly, Giammattei, Health Minister Amelia Flores, and other officials face calls for their resignation due to the mismanagement of the pandemic and the lack of access to vaccines. The opposition parties in Congress, including the Semilla Party, have also called for the President to resign. 

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Amidst the continued crisis that has left the population vulnerable to the virus, the country has largely failed to acquire and administer vaccines. While Guatemala’s Congress was quick to approve millions of dollars in loans from international banks at the beginning of the pandemic, it delayed approving a law that would permit the entrance of vaccines into the country.

Guatemala is currently at the bottom of vaccine distribution rate in the region, trailing nearly every other country in Latin America, with the exception of Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela. According to the Pan-American Health Organization, only about 175,000 vaccines have been administered in Guatemala.  

According to officials, however, the country has over 3.1 million doses available. But in May, President Giammattei promised the country could vaccinate 75,000 to 100,000 people per day if they had vaccines. This promise has failed to materialize. Why those shots aren’t going into arms is largely due to a debilitated health care system and lack of personnel.  

In February, Israel donated 5,000 doses in a highly symbolic gesture, with other donations arriving from India, Mexico, and the United States. The country has also received nearly 725,000 doses from the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. 

The Biden administration has sought to distribute vaccines across Latin America, especially following the lack of urgency during the final days of the Trump administration. In July, a shipment of 1.5 million doses of Moderna arrived in Guatemala from the United States. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D - Virginia) suggested that Guatemala could receive more donations of vaccines. 

The vaccine donations come as the United States has seen the increased influence of Russia and China in Latin America. 

“The United States needed to recuperate territory in its area of influence,” Edgar Gutiérrez, a political analyst and Guatemala’s former minister of foreign relations in the 2000-2004 administration of President Alfonso Portillo, explained. “In the Trump era, China and Russia were much more collaborative than the United States. China and Russia were ahead of them, particularly in South America.”

Russia and China actively engaged in vaccine diplomacy, promoting their vaccines across the region. China offered the Sinovac to the Government of Paraguay in exchange for the country to cease recognizing the independence of Taiwan. 

While there are no reports of similar diplomatic maneuverings by China in Guatemala, the country’s foreign minister Pedro Brolo stated that the country would pursue every opportunity to purchase vaccines, including requesting vaccines from China and Cuba. But President Giammattei has voiced his distrust of Chinese vaccines, telling Reuters that the country will maintain its relationship with Taiwan.

In April 2021, Guatemala announced it had purchased 16 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, paying 80 million dollars for the first half of the doses. As of July 10, the country has only received 550,000 doses of the Russian vaccine. 

The problem isn’t only accessing the vaccines, but also distributing them. In urban areas, the vaccine campaign has been rife with poor management, due to lack of planning and the lack of personnel to administer the shot — all of it resulting in long lines. In rural Indigenous communities, meanwhile, there are almost no efforts to get people vaccinated. According to Hernández Mack, citing data from Lab Datos GT, 45 percent of vaccines have been administered in Guatemala City.  

This is part of a larger problem with the country’s pandemic response, which has largely been left up to municipal authorities. Discrepancies in the response to the pandemic are highlighted by the municipality San Francisco el Alto, in the Department of Totonicapán, which held a packed concert with little measures to contain the pandemic. The municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque, in Chimaltenango, meanwhile, put in place extreme measures, closing the municipality, limiting transportation, and closing businesses.  

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The problems with vaccines are only the latest chapter in a pandemic response that has been teeming with accusations of corruption and fraud. This February, a company contracted by the state purchased thirty thousand test kits for COVID-19 for roughly one million dollars. The kits turned out to be fake. The Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s office maintains that it is investigating the purchase of the fake tests, but the investigation has moved slowly. 

The purchase of the Sputnik V vaccines also revealed possible corruption. The Russian-manufactured vaccines were purchased through a Russian intermediary, Human Vaccine LLC. But according to Gutiérrez, the purchase violated regulations. 

“The signing of the contract was illegal,” Gutiérrez told me. “Specifically, the decree that congress approved to [earmark] the money [to purchase the vaccines] stated that [Guatemala] could not negotiate or acquire the vaccines through an intermediary.” 

What’s worse, he adds, is that the contract provides no guarantee that the vaccines will arrive. The Guatemalan Prosecutor’s Office is also investigating the purchase of vaccines from Russia. 

In July, Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo traveled to Russia. Initial reports stated that the Guatemalan government was seeking to renegotiate the terms of the purchase, but officials quickly walked back these claims. 

Daily newspaper El Periódico reports that the purchase of the Sputnik V vaccine occurred as the country was also negotiating to purchase the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Belgium. That vaccine would have cost less than the Russian vaccine, but the negotiations to purchase the single dose vaccine were terminated upon the 160 million dollar purchase of Sputnik V, at $10 dollars per dose. 

“There is no other explanation other than corruption,” Guttirrez said.

As the country continues to face infections and death from the virus, both public and private hospitals have announced they are overwhelmed and overburdened. As case numbers climb, discontent with the government’s response to the crisis continues to climb. Meanwhile, Guatemalans await the vaccine — from wherever it may come.


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