Thousands of Nicaraguans Spy on Their Neighbors for Health Ministry
Editor's Note: This story was originally published by Confidencial.
In less than fifteen days, more than 9,000 Nicaraguans have called phone number 132 to report on their neighbors. This is the phone line that the regime has set up for consultations regarding Covid-19, and to denounce any suspicions of those who might be carriers of the new Coronavirus.
This practice of watchfulness and accusation has been endorsed by the Ministry of Health (Minsa) as part of their model of “health and community security”, according to state workers at the call center who spoke with Confidencial. The number of calls was also given in the official media.
The government activated this line on March 30, so that Nicaraguans can make a free calls to the Covid-19 National Information Center. There are some 150 operators taking the calls in four six-hour shifts.
Humberto Roman, general director of Minsa’s National Communications System informed that from March 30 through Tuesday, April 14 they had received 24,979 calls; of these, 15,515 were to request information about Covid-19, and the remaining 9,464 were “reporting the entrance of people into the country, legally or across unmarked borders.”
In an interview on Channel 4 TV, owned by President Ortega’s FSLN party, Roman defended the practice as part of the community health network. “It’s not that they’re making denunciations, they’re protecting the health of their family and the community,” he stated.
“We’ve also received calls from family members to say that their siblings have entered the country through unmarked border crossings,” he added.
He emphasized that often they receive more calls from the outer departments than from Managua, especially the areas near the border such as Nueva Segovia, Madriz, Chinandega and Rivas.
Actions of the medical teams
The Health Department official explained that citizens merely give the address of their neighbors; that information is then sent “to the health director of the corresponding Silais (Local System for Integral Health Attention) to follow up on the case.”
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Nonetheless, an operator working the phone line told Confidencial that when they receive a denunciation, in addition to the address, they ask the name of the person who is supposedly infected, how long they’ve been in the country, what country they returned from and if they’re showing symptoms.
“We note all the information on a form, and later we pass it on to some doctors that are there (in the center),” specified the employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job.
The Minsa Communications Director explained that with the information on the suspected case, a health team from the sector visits the home and provides the “indicated” attention; the case is managed according to the characteristics “that are encountered”.
“Many times, a Minsa medical team has already been to the houses. We prefer to sin by excess”, he noted.
No information on any tests or positive Covid-19 cases has been released.
Those denounced receive calls
In a recent interview broadcast over a local channel, Martha Reyes Alvarez, Nicaragua’s health minister, indicated that citizens who are denounced “go through a quarantine of 14 days, and they and all their family are given follow-up with all the preventive measures, so that if a situation of risk should really develop, we could detect it and control it in an opportune way.”
Roman said that following the visit to the home, another team from the Line 132 program calls the person who made the denunciation and informs them that their complaint has been processed. For this reason, they ask the citizens calling in to leave their name and contact information.
“They call them and say: ‘We’ve done what we had to do. We forwarded the concerns to the next level, and attention is being given.’ Many tell us: ‘I already saw that people from the Ministry came,’” stated the official.
Method used since 2016
The idea of the phone line 132 isn’t new in Minsa. Beginning in in November of 2016, they had maintained a number (84189953) where – according to Roman – any medical emergency could be consulted: questions about epidemic watchfulness, natural disasters and public health alerts. It also functioned to register complaints about other citizens.
The difference between these lines is that the new one is free and the other was not. Also, the new phone line forms part of the Covid-19 National Information Center, which is also in charge of contacting travelers who enter Nicaragua. From the end of March through Tuesday, April 14, they’d “made 31,979 calls to travelers,” stated Roman.
Sandinista deputy Gustavo Porras, president of the National Assembly and a subject of sanctions from the US Treasury Department, revealed in an Assembly session held at the beginning of April that more than 16,000 Nicaraguans had arrived in the country from places where there’d been outbreaks of Covid-19. He said Minsa conducts a day-by-day follow up with them.
Each traveler must give a contact number upon arriving in Nicaragua. Later, they call them to ask if they’re complying with the indications given by the Minsa personnel at the borders, and if they’ve had any symptoms.
“If they don’t have symptoms, we call them every 48 hours; if they show symptoms, they receive daily calls,” assured the communications director, who noted that the follow-up period has been extended from two to three weeks.
Working through the National Telephone and Communications System
Roman affirmed that the telephone operators “are health personnel who are trained for this [pandemic].” However, the operator contacted by Confidencial doesn’t work in Minsa, but was selected together with another eight employees from her institution.
The official stated that they continue giving constant training to the operators on the state of the pandemic in the world and in Nicaragua. The operator who spoke with us, however, affirmed that she’d only received initial training. “In two days, they trained us about what Covid-19 is and how the system operates.” This call center is functioning in the building that houses the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Mail (Telcor) in Managua.
FI name: April 2020