During pandemic, Nicaraguan doctors face political pressure

FILE - In this May 11, 2020 file photo, a medical worker wears a mask and face shield at the entrance of the SERMESA hospital in Managua, Nicaragua. While the Pan-American Health Organization urges Nicaragua to take more aggressive measures against the coronavirus pandemic and neighboring countries warily eye its outbreak, President Daniel Ortegas increasingly authoritarian government seems more focused on hiding the virus than treating it. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)
FILE - In this May 11, 2020 file photo, a medical worker wears a mask and face shield at the entrance of the SERMESA hospital in Managua, Nicaragua. While the Pan-American Health Organization urges Nicaragua to take more aggressive measures against the coronavirus pandemic and neighboring countries warily eye its outbreak, President Daniel Ortegas increasingly authoritarian government seems more focused on hiding the virus than treating it. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File) (Copyright 2019. The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

MANAGUA – Inside Nicaragua's public hospitals, the walls are plastered with political propaganda, ruling-party activists ensure no information leaks out, and doctors were once forbidden from wearing masks.

While the Pan-American Health Organization urges Nicaragua to take more aggressive measures against the coronavirus pandemic and neighboring countries warily eye its outbreak, President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian government seems more focused on hiding the virus than treating it.

Schools remain open, and the government has threatened to ban baseball players who refuse to play — at games that still draw fans. And everyone is warned to keep quiet.

“Inside, everything is secret,” Dr. María Nela Escoto, an anesthesiologist with 24 years of experience, told The Associated Press of her work at a hospital. “They don’t allow suggestions, and you can’t question anything because they’re watching. It’s a very hostile environment.”

At the Lenín Fonseca hospital in the capital of Managua, pro-government activists outside make sure no one who shouldn't is entering and administrators prevent anyone inside from taking photos. The walls are covered with images of national heroes and martyrs and photos of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, said Escoto.

Frightened that the government’s attempts to deny the severity of the outbreak would doom many in this Central American country, 600 medical workers signed an open letter in May asking for protective equipment in public hospitals. Within weeks, more than a dozen were fired.

Escoto was among them. She said the director of human resources handed her a letter dismissing her and told her it came “from above” — understood in Nicaragua to mean that the government had ordered it.

With their jobs already gone, several of the doctors are now describing the repression they faced and how it is hampering the country's response to the virus. The government did not respond to a request for comment on the doctors' dismissals and the allegations of repression.