by Julio Letona Chávez at GoPhil partner ASSADE Guatemala
with additional insight from Mae Ardón, GoPhil Programs Coordinator, Latin America

It can be assumed that receiving news of vaccination for Covid-19 in Guatemala would represent a sense of relief at the national level, but does it really?

The effect of Coronavirus in Mayan communities across Guatemala has been devastating. The virus has affected communities at every level – especially the basic needs and health care area of disadvantaged peoples. We recently passed the one-year mark since Guatemala detected its first case of Covid-19. One year might seem like a short time but with the pandemic, it feels much longer for us. The complexity of dealing with the virus has caused more than one headache. To review a couple of aspects: one of the first impacts of the virus was the need to restructure ASSADE’s model of care in communities. On the front line, our first steps in restructuring focused on preventative measures to provide care at our clinic and in our community outreach programs.

Mae Ardón, who lives in Panajachel, Guatemala, shared: “A pattern started arising in the communities as soon as the country ‘reopened’ back in August, of not trusting public health services and doubting official information channels. The population in rural areas started looking for alternatives to treat the symptoms of Covid at home, relying on local Mayan healing practitioners, volunteer emergency services, and non-profit organizations. It really puts into perspective how necessary services like the ones provided by ASSADE are, not only for the inadequacy or lack of public services but also for the trust that the community has in them. If it were not for these alternatives, people would not have a place to go to.

But it is also alarming to realize the amount of pressure that is being put on organizations with such limited resources, that are having to amplify their fundraising efforts in the midst of a crisis and work with limited supplies while putting their own lives at risk. The skepticism towards official information has also resulted in the relaxation of prevention measures. There are entire communities who have collectively decided to not wear masks, and the overall restrictions are not being enforced properly, which is now contributing to the problem.”

One of the first consequences we saw of the pandemic at the operational level at ASSADE was an increase in persons seeking care that was beyond our capacity to attend to them. At the same time, communities and families were suffering greatly on an economic level. Before the virus, Mayan communities had very little trust in the Public Health System, and now with the Covid-19 virus, their trust has deteriorated even further. It has resulted in a total collapse of trust in the public health programs in Guatemala.

Patients waiting for medical services at ASSADE’s clinic.

“The reactions of the population have also been influenced by the disdain for government and their misuse of funds and negligence to react to the pandemic and decisions that prioritize private interests. Guatemala’s external debt has more than doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, supposedly to ensure funds for the government to respond to the crisis. Meanwhile, families are struggling with a weakened economy and a lack of solutions and opportunities. Not even the modest monthly bonuses that the government promised to families during the most critical months have arrived. Families were supposed to receive US$128 for three months that then turned into US$32 per family. Many families didn’t receive any support from the government whatsoever, again relying on mutual aid groups and private organizations. Hospitals are at maximum capacity and healthcare workers have complained about lack of resources and not being paid salaries for prolonged periods of time. 

There is currently a strong movement led by a coalition of civil society organizations that made the population aware there are currently more than US$300-Million of Covid-19 funds that have not been accounted for. The overall indignation for how the government has handled this crisis, paired with the misinformation about the vaccine, has resulted in the population rejecting the vaccine even before it has arrived in Guatemala,” shared Mae Ardón, GoPhil Programs Coordinator, Latin America.

Today we find that proposed vaccination coverage in Mayan communities does not even reach 35% of the population. This number is a good example of how fragile and disorganized preventative health care is in Guatemala, while also recognizing that any vaccination program of this scale is a challenge. I say ‘challenge’ to use a pretty word, but the reality is, vaccination for Covid-19 is going to be a failure in Guatemala. At the moment, most communities are not open to receive the Covid-19 vaccination. For too long these communities have been forgotten and overlooked by the government. They have suffered from a lack of access to health care, and they have been oppressed for their cosmogony and traditional health care practices and understandings. Communities have been discriminated against, losing all trust in governmental services and they have worked together with grassroots organizations to develop adequate health care as evidenced by the inclusive model we use at ASSADE. The nonexistence of a first level of care – which is essential for preventative health care – is the reason we have such a deep crisis in Guatemala, and especially for Mayan communities.

The Guatemalan government recently spent $200-Million USD in the acquisition of 7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, which were meant to arrive in February 2021… which they now state have been delayed.

On average, each vaccine costs $28 USD, which is three times the cost of adequate health care for a patient from communities where ASSADE works.

No matter how many more millions of dollars the Government spends on vaccines or tests for Covid-19, they have for too long forgotten to invest in the first level of health.

At ASSADE, we believe we must invest in infrastructure, training, and development in Mayan communities; if not, any attempt to create “relief” is merely a small band-aid on a painful and deeply bleeding wound. 

We also believe we need vaccination against inhumanity, hate, discrimination, corruption, and frivolity. The path before us to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic remains a long one, but we will continue to work on the frontline in the struggle to develop one united force, with communities, to make positive changes for the health care of Mayans.

Thank you,

Julio Letona Chávez, ASSADE Guatemala

At GoPhil we are currently working to fill a funding gap to support ASSADE and their staff needs the support of the GoPhil community now more than ever in order to meet the incredible demands of the rural indigenous communities in which they work. ASSADE is actively combating not only the ongoing fallout of Coronavirus and the incredible demands on their clinic but also preparing for how the vaccine roll-out will almost certainly overlook their indigenous patients for many months to come.

If you are able, please consider making a contribution today using the button below.