Guatemala: Slow-Motion Collapse

By Dina Fernández

Photos by Wilder Lopez/Soy502

Haga clic aquí para leer en español.

We were expecting an earthquake, not a pandemic.

Ciudadanos manifiestan en la Plaza de la Constitución en contra de varios temas como el manejo que ha tenido el presidente Alejandro Giammattei en la crisis del Covid-19. La protesta se efectúa pese al riesgo de contagios en concentraciones de personas. / Citizens protest at the Plaza de la Constitución against President Alejandro Giammattei’s management of the Covid-19 crisis. The protest is in process despite the risk of contagion in large gatherings.

Guatemala is in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire; a country the size of Tennessee, it is threatened by four tectonic plates and has almost 300 volcanos.  

Here, we have all grown up with tremors, and some of us remember the last “great” earthquake: that of 1976, which in 39 seconds and with a roar that still rumbles in my ears, left more than 20,000 dead and entire towns in ruins.

This time, it was not an earthquake that showed us how vulnerable we are, nor another raging catastrophe like a volcano eruption or a hurricane. It was what no one saw coming: a zoonotic virus originating with bats.

I have to confess that I did not grasp the magnitude of the problem when the news began to arrive from  Wuhan, the Chinese city where the Covid-19 pandemic officially originated.  It wasn’t until the new coronavirus was demonstrating its lethal power in Europe towards the end of February, when I really became aware of the threat that an outbreak would pose to a country like ours without a health system worthy of the name.

On March 15, President Alejandro Giammattei  announced the first  coronavirus death in Guatemala: an 85-year-old man who had recently traveled to Spain with his family. The following day,  the government declared a state of emergency and imposed unprecedented restrictions. It suspended all private and public activity such as mass transportation, prohibited movement between provinces, banned all sorts of gatherings and the sale of liquor. It shut down the schools, the churches and the borders and imposed a curfew that only let people out on the streets between four in the morning and four in the afternoon.

Cellphones were bursting with awful images. The convoys of coffins in Bergamo in northern Italy. The dead discarded on the streets in Guayaquil in Ecuador. The refrigerated trucks to store bodies outside New York hospitals.

In Guatemala, fear increased as statistics—the worst in the continent—lay bare the abandonment of our health care system.  Less than one hospital bed per 1,000 inhabitants and 60 respiratory ventilators available in the tent hospitals that the government swiftly set up to cope with the pandemic. Only 60 for a country of 16 million inhabitants. Costa Rica, slightly to our south, with a population of five million, had more than 700.

For a few weeks, the cases advanced slowly, in spite of the enormous deficiencies of the governmental response. Although the government had been swift in constructing the temporary hospitals, the only thing it did to improve the health care system, everything else became complicated and even paralyzed. Days passed and the authorities were not capable of finalizing the hiring of health workers because of insignificant bureaucratic problems like missing a tax certificate.  Frontline doctors complained, desperately, both about lack of pay and of personal protection. The tests available in the public sector in the first months were all donated because the Health Ministry did not manage to carry out international purchases.

Marcos Antonio López Gómez, comerciante informal, se dedica a vender granizadas a base de hielo y sabores artificiales; pero debido a la pandemia del Covid-19 su fuente de ingresos se ha visto afectada de gran manera. / Marcos Antonio López Gómez, informal worker, sells granizados with ice and artificial flavors; due to the pandemic, his source of income has been greatly affected.
Bomberos departamentales esperan autorización para ingresar al hospital temporal del Parque de la Industria. Esta unidad fue utilizada para trasladar a pacientes recuperados de covid-19 hacia Patzún, Chimaltenango. / Departamental firefighters wait for authorization to enter the temporary hospital of Parque de la Industria. This unit was used to move recovered Covid-19 patients to Patzún, Chimaltenango.

Personas hacen una larga fila en la Plaza de la Constitución con el fin de recibir un plato de comida de forma gratuita. La entrega de alimentos fue gracias a el apoyo de un grupo de jóvenes conocidos como “La Olla Comunitaria” / People stand in line at the Plaza de la Constitución with the end goal of receiving a free plate of food. The delivery of food was thanks to the support of a group of youths known as “La Olla Comunitaria”

With only few tests and one laboratory to process them, the pandemic took hold of the capital and the central region of the country. In mid-July, the first wave hit its peak. Photos and videos circulating in social media showed the social security clinics with sick people curled up on corridor floors. On several occasions, doctors called press conferences in front of their hospitals to denounce the lack of resources and to ask the public to avoid contagion by social distancing and wearing masks. In one of these improvised conferences, the director of Roosevelt Hospital, Marco Barrientos, said on the verge of tears, “Medical personnel has been battling with all this, we are worn out, exhausted. There’s even frustrating in saying, what more can I do, where am I going?”

While I write these lines, on September 24, official data is registering more than 87,000 cases (amongst them President Giammattei who is currently battling the illness), and almost 3,100 dead, but we all now that the number is much, much higher than reflected in the these figures. Towards the end of June, President Giammattei was obliged to dismiss the entire top echelon of the Health Ministry in order to get the pandemic under control and set up a presidential commission to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. A month later, the new health authorities implemented an alert system, a sort of health “traffic light” for the pandemic that would determine preventive measures in each locality. Of the 340 towns throughout the country, 200 were in the red zone, the maximum alert. The authorities reassured that the cases had decreased in the central region, although they had begun to multiply in the western mountains, where the poorest and most isolated regions of the country were concentrated.  However, the statistics were uncertain; there were more than 200 towns in which not even 100 tests had been administered since the beginning of the pandemic.  At the national level, the goal of 5,000 tests proposed by the authorities in May was achieved in just one day.  

Economic damages are also tangible. Guatemala has an economy that grows  little, around 3 % annually for the past quarter of a century. Now, for the first time since 1981, the country has fallen into a recession. Up until July, the estimate of the employer association was that 100,000 jobs had been lost, while Guatemalan Institute of  Social Welfare (IGSS) reported the closing of almost 4,000 businesses. Empty storefronts with “for rent” signs abound in the malls that feel like abandoned structures. At midyear, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had contracted 4%, the worst crisis in a hundred years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the intelligence services were preparing to deal with demonstrations and rioting. They cautioned that legions of unemployed people would loot stores. It did not happen. People in need went out onto the streets with white flags and signs  explaining their situation to ask for food, children in tow.

The pandemic, as always in a crisis, brought out the best and the worst in the society. In the historic center of the city, one could see signs of this heroism. The owner of Café Rayuela, moved by a crisis that had left thousands of people without food, decided to serve free lunches. Thus the “Communitarian Pot” was born. From March to September, it has served more than 100,000 meals. The endless line of people waiting for a plate of food is one of the emblematic images of the pandemic.

The worst reaction by the society has been the stigmatizing of those with Covid-19, treated in many cases as if they were lepers. The persecution has been particularly cruel with the migrants deported from the United States. In several communities, lynch mobs have formed to keep them from going home, and in some cases the returned migrants have received death threats. 

“Vilma” captada solicitando ayuda para poder llevar víveres o dinero a su familia. Ella es acompañada de sus sobrinos quienes tienen que estar en las calles ya que no tienen los medios para dejar a las niñas y niños al cuidado de alguien más. / “Vilma” captured soliciting help to take good or money for her family. She is accompanied by her nephews and nieces who must be on the streets since she doesn’t have the means to leave the children in the care of someone else.

Una mujer posa para una fotografía en las inmediaciones de la Plaza de la Constitución. Ella lleva una piñata para celebrar el cumpleaños a su hijo bajo la temática del Covid-19. / A woman poses for a photo in the events at the Plaza de la Constitución. She carries a piñata to celebrate her son’s birthday under Covid-19.

Yolanda García, madre soltera, decidió salir a pedir ayuda a la calle en el día de las madres; celebrado el 10 de mayo en Guatemala. Anteriormente ella se dedicaba a vender comida, pero debido a la pandemia su negocio se vio afectado. / Yolanda García, single mother, decided to leave for the street for help for mother’s day; celebrating the 10 of May in Guatemala. Previously, she sold food, but due to the pandemic her business has been affected.

Six months after the pandemic started, the only thing we know is that we will have to wait to calculate the damages, from the real death toll to the medium- and long-term political and socio-economic effects. The 1976 earthquake was like that. Today we know that it provoked an accelerated migration to the capital that led to precarious settlements along the ravines, a breeding ground for the gangs that today are the nucleus of urban violence.

Today we know that the present crisis revealed a health system in shambles. In spite of the fact that the Guatemalan Congress approved US$2,500 million to attend to the emergency, hospitals are still without supplies and patients are asked to bring their own medicines; there still aren’t enough tests. On the local level, complaints abound because the most needy families nor businesses have not received the promised aid from assistance programs. It’s suspected that the corruption in the management of Covid-19 funds is monumental.  In the streets and on social media, protests are heard, “Where is the money?”

This situation is added to the political commotion that has been rocking the country since 2015, when the presidency of General Otto Pérez Molina collapsed in the midst of corruption charges.  Five years later, we are still being buffeted by storms from those fierce winds of political unrest. The country is immersed in an institutional crisis without precedent, which has the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Congress facing off against each other. The mafias incrusted in power, in collusion with organized crime, push to coopt the courts with lawyers who have mafia ties, and the country appears to advance, staggering, on the path to implosion.   

In this context, the pandemic has become a catalyst in an atmosphere already charged with uncertainty and mistrust. Aside from the white flags, the desperate clamor of the doctors and the grief of families who cannot even bury their dead, perhaps silence is one of the markers that will remain engrained in the collective memory in the same form as the roar of the 1976 earthquake did. 

During the first week of the lockdown, I woke up several times at the crack of dawn. Many years ago, a peasant had told me that the noise was what most bothered him about the city, where three million people had come together to live. Now, the streets had become mute, without even the sound of traffic, without honking horns or the grinding of tires, indeed, without gunshots.

It was a silence filled with disturbing  omens.  According to research by anthropologist Richard Adams, in the 1918 influenza pandemic, about 10% of Guatemals’s population died. Curiously, this immense disaster did not remain in Guatemalans’ collective memory unlike in the rest of the world, with the same intensity as other catastrophes. Why that’s so is a good question worthy of exploration.

Un empleado de la municipalidad limpia los cristales de una estación de buses, previo a la reapertura de la línea del Transmetro que recorre el área conocida como El Trébol. / An employee of the municipality cleans the windows at the bus station, prior to the reopening of the Transmetro line that transits the area known as El Trébol.

Now, without a doubt, the deaths are fewer, even taking into account unreported deaths. In spite of this, the new coronavirus has made us confront many underestimated or forgotten realities: the possibility of a decline in life expectancy; the globalization of disinformation that discredits not only vaccines, but science in general; the unfathomable costs of the lack of political consensus to build strong health and social security systems; the uncertainty in the face of the impending economic crisis, perhaps the most serious in centuries; the collateral effects of environmental damage on a planetary scale.  

If the references are true, we know that in Guatemala, in the 1920s, the influenza pandemic was one of the elements that undermined the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. In 2020, we do not know what effect Covid-19 will have on the precarious economy and devastated political system in Guatemala, but without a doubt, it will have consequences. 

For years, I heard “now it’s time” for another earthquake, so we had to have a “72-hour bag” prepared to survive the disaster. Instead, we have to live through another type of challenge, a slow-motion disaster that will keep on provoking collapses and deaths for years, one in which we do not know what structures will break down nor how we will emerge from the rubble.  For now, what we so know is that we have to value the essential: the luxury of health, the very fact of breathing, the treasure of a hug and the leap of confidence inspired by a handshake.  


Dina Fernández is an anthropologist and journalist. She was a Harvard Nieman Fellow in 2002-2003. She has worked for several media in Guatemala. In 2013, she was part of the team that founded Soy502, the news website with the highest traffic in Central America.