Underneath some thoughts of me being stuck in Honduras in times of corona. And Hondurans being stuck in Honduras. A letter to friends, family and interested souls.
My flight was due to return on the 20th of March from Costa Rica, but Nicaragua did not give me permission to travel overland (imagine this is due to corona, although could have been they didn’t like my articles). So booked a flight to Costa Rica on Sunday 15th to fly the 16th, but a few hours later Honduras shut down all its borders, for at least 7 days. Within these 7 days so many more borders are getting closed that my hopes of getting back soon are rather dim. Belgian embassy (one for all of central america) is doing fuck all but I’m on the list of several embassies here. Think only hope is joined repatriation exercise of several EU countries, but Honduras is not very high on the list. Not really a massive tourist destination with loads of privileged westerners stuck. Although we are all privileged westerners, we are just not loads.
And with all this news of collapse coming from the privileged West my main worry here is what will happen once corona hits countries like Honduras, and sooner or later it will hit. There is no social security system here. Between 2010 and 2014 alone elites connected to the ruling party robbed it of about US$ 335 millions of dollars, as a result the institution went bankrupt. For every 100,000 people there is 9,5 hospital beds, private hospitals included. The few public hospitals that exist, have barely something in them, such as nurses and doctors. There are few corona tests in the country, less than 100 ventilators and even less experts who know how they work. There is no antibacterial gel left, no facemasks, let alone decent space for isolation and necessary clothing for doctors and nurses. Pictures appeared of them dressing themselves with binbags to protect them from the virus. The health system here collapsed years before corona. Hondurans know that if corona hits the country they are fucked.
And corona will hit the country and it will spread like wildfire. Official figures report 24 cases. But unofficial figures are probably much higher already. An estimated 80% of the population will get infected and it will cause many more deaths than in the West. Not only because of the collapsed health system but because of the economic, social and sanitary conditions people live in. Many people live packed on eachother in slums with extended families in small spaces without running water. Many survive with some informal work like selling nuts or papers on the street. In a country with the second highest poverty rate in Latin America, most people here do not eat if they do not work that day, nor does their family. Curfew is not an option that can be sustained for long. Many Hondurans fear sooner or later the looting will start because people are desperate. The 18th already saw some looting.
These last two months I was traveling to work on new stories, I visited severely undernourished indigenous communities in Guatemala surviving on beans and tortillas. In Honduras the indigenous Garifuna I stayed with are equally weakened by centuries of discrimination. I was in slums in Guatemala and Honduras. I visited overpacked Honduran jails, was with disabled returning migrants too poor to even buy pampers and LGTBI+ persons with HIV. I worry for all of them. In Europe the “weak of society” are the old and sick (gleefully forgetting the thousands of refugees living on the street or camps in Europe). In countries like Honduras the population that are “the weak” is much bigger. I fear here corona will become a social cleansing; of the poor, the indigenous, the women, the weak, the sick and old. Some people say more people die here of poverty, dengue, HIV, diabetes, etc. True. But corona will only push these avoidable deaths up.
So maybe the drastic measures taken by the government even before there were, officially, corona cases are not so surprising. Since 15th of March the country closed it’s borders. The 16th people were told to stay inside. The 17th a partial curfew was imposed throughout the country and in many areas and all major cities a complete curfew in the traditional Latin American dictatorship style. All constitutional rights, such as freedom of expression, suspended. No restrictions and checks on State forces. Except for the local grocery story with often nothing in it we are not allowed on the streets to buy food or medicines. Except for the 19th, when the equally logical decision was made to relax the curfew for a few hours, and everybody was out at the same time. Recipe for violence and infection.
Hondurans and the authorities have experience with curfews here. The most recent with the crisis after the fraudulent elections in 2017, or in 2009 after the coup d’etat. For Hondurans curfews bring back memories of political upheaval and repression. Many Hondurans are suspicious now. They know their authorities are more experienced with repressing and profiteering than taking care of the well-being of their population. Or at least the poor part of the population. Images of rich neighbourhoods getting better infected than poor ones confirm that perception. Or the law voted on 12th of March approving 420 million dollar to fight corona that allows for much corruption and not much urgent necessary actions.
Maybe because Hondurans know their health system is close to non-existent and their government is not very experienced in taking care of their population most do seem to take the necessary precautions. Most seem terrified for what is to come. It puts my worries about being able to travel back to Belgium somewhat in perspective. Us privileged Westerners will be able to travel back sooner or later, embassies are working hard on that …. Ha …. Just as I am writing this authorities allowed foreigners to leave! …. And extended the total curfew to the whole country until at least the 29th of March. People are only allowed to go shopping at the groceries in their local communities. Pharmacies and supermarkets should do home delivery, not a very realistic service in slums or the countryside.
After all this doomy news for Honduras, back to myself, or to you, to tell you not to worry about me. I am well, living with friends that have a beautiful little house with a garden. We have no running water because the waterpump just broke but water gets connected a few times a day. We have enough food to get us through a week or two. To give my housemates some space and privacy (they sure weren’t expecting me to stay that much longer) I go work in the garden of one friend in the same neighbourhood. I have so many work piled up after this travel collecting stories that I’ll have to go in lockdown anyway, be it in Belgium or Honduras.
But seems Honduras opening borders will have me focus on how to leave again. Who knows with a commercial flight (if there are still countries I can fly to). Or maybe some repatriation effort of European embassies. So, as Honduras is entering phase 3, meaning they cannot track everyone that has been in touch with the known infected individuals, I am hoping to leave, very fucking conscious of how much that is a privilege. Very immensely fucking worried for all my friends here and in Guatemala, and the populations of these countries I love so much.
TRANSLATED IN DUTCH AND PUBLISHED IN MO.BE ON 27 MARCH 2020
UPDATE 2 APRIL FOR ENCUENTRO BELGIAN – LATIN AMERICAN NETWORK
Not only the government is imposing a curfew. In El Salvador, gangs like MS 13 and Barrio 18 are also imposing quarantine in the neighborhoods they control. Not complying with the gang’s curfew can have lethal consequences. The gangs fear they will not get any medical attendance if they turn sick, nor would others from their community. They also do not want to provide police and military forces a pretext to enter their territories. On a positive note, some gangs stopped the extortions while others postponed it as they fail to collect it.
Maybe because Hondurans know their health system is close to non-existent, most civilians do seem to take the necessary precautions. Most seem terrified for what is to come. The amount of confirmed infections are rapidly increasing. On the 11th op March, the first two were confirmed. On the 1st of April, there were 172 confirmed cases and 10 deaths . But Hondurans can rest assured; they received their blessings. On the 30th of March, the church and army allied together to fly Honduras’ patron saint, the Virgin of Suyapa, around in a helicopter all around the country. While the cost of the fuel is around 4600 dollar per hour, it will take various days to cover the national territory. If only this were a tale in one of Gabriel García Márquez his books instead of the reality in Honduras.