Will we turn this pandemic into an opportunity to begin anew?
When they say the pandemic is here to stay,
there’s a lot of truth to that unwelcome statement.
It will leave but its social and mental consequences,
its material and spiritual traces will remain with us.
Honduran reality is already so extreme that this
grim material, spiritual, economic and social future
poses a profound dilemma for us as a society.
Either we turn this pandemic into an
opportunity to begin anew as a society,
or it will be what finally sinks us into a
terminal state of deterioration.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
In January and February, the pandemic seemed like something happening in a place so far away on the planet. Far and foreign it seemed to us.
And even so, there already was xenophobia. During one of those rare international trips I made at the beginning of this ill-fated ear, the person accompanying me saw we were coming upon someone with Asian features. “Just in case,” he said to me, steering us quickly away, “to avoid infection.” When we began to hear about fellow citizens and relatives infected in the United States, others dying from the virus there, we began to follow the news with concern. When we heard there were already cases in Panama and Costa Rica, we felt forewarned. Today, as I write, in mid-August, we feel fenced in by death, with more than 50,000 infected Hondurans and almost 6,000 dead, knowing there are many more.
A dance of millions
In mid-March they announced the first cases of infection in Honduras. The government promptly called Congress into an emergency meeting. They approved billions of lempiras to tend to the pandemic, without having a single plan in hand, but following the orders of the President, Juan Orlando Hernández. Days later, Congress approved millions more.
Then came millions in loans. Hernández, with an actor’s broken voice, spoke every day about the crisis, the emergency, prevention... He announced the construction of 95 hospitals and even of importing mobile hospitals from Turkey.
That’s how the dance of millions began; soon they were directed down three channels. One was of pure looting, diverting money to private accounts.
It’s said that in only two weeks most of the approved funds had already disappeared. Another channel was for party politics: it was spent on sacks of food to be given to grassroots activists of the ruling National Party: “generosity” accompanied by insistent publicity in which Hernández appeared as the giving leader relieving his people’s hunger.
The third channel emptied into the Armed Forces. The military hospital received the best medical equipment while the Army High Command was entrusted with control of the equipment delivered to hospitals and the sacks of food delivered to the people.
We’ve been living
with death for years
The dance of lies started mid-March. Every day national media channels gave us figures of infected, dead and recovered. Everyone knows the figures aren’t reliable. Everyone knows President Hernández lies and issues promises without foundation.
In June everyone doubted he and his wife were infected.
True or false figures, promises in thin air, but death soon came upon us, knocking on every door, each time closer and more threatening. It was then that we became conscious of so many other violent deaths, also close and threatening, the ones we had gotten used to living with.
For years we have competed with other countries as the most violent one in the world. For years we won the trophy for the country with the largest number of homicides on the planet. Those violent deaths haven’t ceased during the pandemic; there’s been no respite. Massacres and disappearances haven’t stopped during the health emergency. The nine people, at least, killed in July deep in the department of Yoro were hardly news because those responsible are an open secret; people with public responsibilities and therefore with impunity. Nothing new.
The virus was only the trigger
The naively enthusiastic readings of the crisis that abounded during the first weeks of the pandemic augured significant changes in lifestyles, in the economic models, in human relationships and in international relations. Very soon this optimism gave way to a more careful, rather pessimistic analysis about the present as well as what we can expect for the still uncertain future. It’s not true that COVID-19 is an opportunity to change course, at least in Honduras. It is what it is: a crisis of large dimensions that at the moment is becoming an occasion to reveal the rottenness of all our previous crises.
The pillaging of resources supposedly approved to tend to the sick, led by public officials who should be serving the population as such, shows that something deeper was already broken in our country. It indicates that the virus only a new trigger for this cruel and cynical selfishness.
It’s why the huge corruption scandal derived from the purchase of “mobile hospitals” isn’t surprising. The social fabric that ensures the orienting of public tasks toward the common good was already ripped to shreds long ago by the greed of public servants.
Honduras is one of the most extreme cases in the world of social and economic inequality. Only South Africa and Haiti surpass us. We are among those ranking highest in perception of public corruption. The Honduran case is so extreme that wherever the name of our country is mentioned it is immediately associated with illicit narcotics trade directed right from the highest authorities in the executive branch.
Every man for himself!
The inhumane globalization of capital, promoted for several decades throughout the world, has brought dehumanizing consequences everywhere.
These have risen to the surface with the propagation of COVID-19. Discrimination, greed, lack of solidarity, irresponsibility… And even though feelings of solidarity have appeared between individuals and peoples with the pandemic, that’s not what has prevailed during these months, at least not in Honduras. Here the logic of “every man for himself” and “whoever wants to get infected, go ahead” has taken over.
This pandemic has shown that we human beings have reached an impressive level of technological development. But it has also revealed that we haven’t advanced to a similar degree in promoting empathy among people and cooperation between nations. So many years of fomenting satisfied societies and promoting individual happiness at the cost of social sensitivity has given us rotten fruits we now regret. The coronavirus has done nothing more than uncover what was already there: rottenness aged over time; and now that it’s out in the open, it stinks.
As in other countries in our region, the economic criteria of big business and the most corrupt politicians have been a priority over health criteria in Honduras. Money over health.
When the “smart reopening” of the economy was approved and instituted in June, voices from medical sciences warned that this was happening during the moment of greatest infection.
Those voices were ignored. Maquilas [assembly plants for duty-free re-export, commonly if now always fairly known as sweatshops], transnational businesses and big national companies reopened. Within weeks, infections had multiplied as had deaths, inevitably including health workers. By early July, 1,800 doctors and health workers had been infected with COVID-19.
Epidemiologists agreed on pointing out that the political-economic decision of a “smart reopening” was responsible for increasing the infections. But the decision didn’t change. It was maintained in spite of protests and criticism from several mayors, who demanded an epidemiological wall be established around their municipalities to allow them to control the pandemic and reduce infections.
By then, the precarious public health system was overwhelmed and hospitals couldn’t provide even minimum care to those infected. Soon, the cities and municipalities with the greatest number of infected had to go back to Phase Zero.
A grim future
The coronavirus has both bared and intensified the already worsening crises. And they will predictably only get worse.
First there’s the crisis that causes inequality. As a region, Latin America has the greatest inequality in the world, with the largest concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while the majority are impoverished and marginalized. And Central America is still the sub-region with the worst inequality. The pandemic has shown how much inequality exists in our societies.
All facts indicate that this pandemic will continue empowering groups and individuals who have profited from the current economic and political model, and at the same time will push those who already were excluded from opportunities into even greater poverty. There are no signs of any change in this course, or of anyone who could take over the helm and is interested in changing it. Those charting the course in our country are firmly ensconced at the head of the free trade zones, the extractive industries, agro-exports, the technological and media industries and now, with even more determination, the pharmaceutical industry.
The concentration of economic and political decisions in the same sectors as always and the massive impoverishment, with even more now unemployed and poor on the streets, seems to be the scenery that will dominate the future scenarios, where inequality greater than we’ve ever known before could remain unaltered indefinitely.
This grim future challenges universities, research centers, international cooperation agencies, nongovernmental organizations and churches to shine the spotlight on what is unarguably exacerbating this historical inequality, exclusion and violence: the neoliberal capitalist model.
In this ever more polarizing world, neutrality and indifference are no longer comfortable options for decent, caring people. We are pushed to side with the women and men in the marginal rural and urban populations, indigenous peoples, unemployed and marginalized youths, migrants, and displaced and refugee populations.
Extractivism will continue
There’s also the environmental crisis.
It’s not true that the pandemic will redirect money towards environmentally friendly economic projects in Honduras, as so many environmentalists with clear ideas and good hearts have proposed.
It’s more likely that the plundering of nature and the expropriation of communities that have ancestrally preserved it will continue and extractive projects will go on being priorities for foreign investment. If during the pandemic the social and economic violence has had no respite, neither have the extractive projects. In northern and western Honduras, mining exploitation has been unflaggingly seizing natural resources.
Water will also continue to be a growing source of conflicts, with its control defining who have the real power in our country. After the first few weeks during which the maquilas were closed down in the Choloma area of Sula Valley, the residents were amazed to see how the Choloma riverbed started to fill with water. It was clear evidence to them that the maquila plant were consuming all the municipality’s water. Many people had thought the reason they were only getting a trickle of water in their houses, during the night or only twice a week, was the climate change they had heard so much about. The coronavirus revealed to them that the water wasn’t being sucked up by the sun’s heat on the deforested earth, but by the maquilas. Nobody suspected the disproportionate consumption of water these companies need to work. In a decade they have turned this fertile area into arid land, on its way to becoming a desert.
Many environmentalists center their warning on mining and the control of rivers in which dams are to be built to guarantee water for the mining industry. Very few refer, or have only done so marginally,
to the enormous amounts of water the maquilas need. In addition to this environmental destruction and the handicapping of so many women by forcing them to do endless repetitive movements, these exploitative assembly plants don’t respect labor laws and only rarely allow unions.
A strategic alliance is essential between both expert and grassroots ecological sectors and academic, church and political sectors to deal with the environmental challenge. They need to hammer out a comprehensive plan to protect both the environment and the rights of nature and of the peasant and indigenous communities threatened or expelled by the extractive projects.
No solution in sight
The crisis represented by that degradation of democracy that has contaminated the institutionality of the rule of law for decades in Honduras and in the end devastated is also awaiting us.
Instead of promoting more participation, the pandemic—which came to stay in our lands for much longer than we originally thought—has contributed to closing even more spaces, giving greater leadership to the military, caudillo politicians and petty dictators, paving the way for the populist, authoritarian and dictatorial traits in the government to prosper.
The United Nations Development Programme’s most recent study on the state of democracy in Honduras, based on a survey done early this year and presented at the end of June, concluded that Honduras’ political deterioration is of such magnitude that no solution is in sight.
The study points out that along with the institutional collapse and the corruption, people who would have the capacity to influence are excluded from all decision-making arenas.
The study highlighted four hypothetical scenarios for the country: stagnation; partial reforms under the aegis of those who support the current state of things; an inclusive transformation; and even greater authoritarianism.
After the arrival of the coronavirus, the prevailing tendency seems to be a cross between the two worst scenarios: stagnation and greater authoritarianism.
A well-known member of an NGO that presents itself as representing civil society, even though it has official consent, commented on the results from the UNDP study: “There is less and less capacity to make democratic changes in Honduras.”
What our own survey tells us
The results of the tenth public opinion survey conducted by the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team of the Jesuits in Honduras released in the first half of July agree with this less than optimistic assessment. In fact, it found that Honduran society doesn’t believe there will be positive changes in either the short or medium term.
A full 80% of the population consulted in our survey confirmed its distrust of all state institutions. This distrust exceeds 80% in the cases of political parties, the National Congress, the central government, and those responsible for both the electoral process and the meting out of justice With no perceptible way out of the governability crisis, people are less than wedded to the importance of democracy, with 45.5% preferring it as a political project while 40% were willing to accept any project, even not democratic, that guarantees jobs, security and health; uses public resources transparently and efficiently controls corruption.
Both the UNDP study and our survey show a population that doesn’t see democracy as having been good for them and perceives no way out that with the current government. Without doubt, they would like a change of government, even if the new one is even more authoritarian, as long as it solves their basic vital desires.
Since 2010, when we started these enquiries, the Honduran State has been molding an institutionality that has less and less to do with democracy. It’s not even a non-democratic project. It’s a mafia specialized in protecting itself from public opinion, which it sees as a threat that needs to be silenced any way possible.
Priorities for a transition
Even though it’s hard under these circumstances to imagine a transition scenario for Honduras, helping it happen starts by the most accredited voices proposing an institutional response to the health debacle, prioritizing health over economic and political interests.
The priority should be to stop infections and reduce the number of deaths.
Another institutional priority should be to respond to the enormous challenge posed by the hunger being suffered by thousands of Honduran families. Malnutrition and hunger are tragedies that will continue to increase as incomes and job opportunities decrease. That the hungry have thus far shown surprising signs of passivity and patience doesn’t mean that when there’s more hunger, we won’t enter into a spiral of social convulsion and political instability.
Achieving a transition also demands encounters between different social and political actors searching for solitons and jointly defining strategic lines of action that help overcome the trap of the current government’s short-sightedness and deafness. These arenas should collectively confront key issues for Honduran society such as corruption and impunity, the political regime’s illegality and the deep reforms the 2021 electoral process requires to make it legitimate. These debates should lead to consensus that the continuation of Juan Orlando Hernández and his team at the head of the country only makes the situation worse, even in the shortest of terms.
Death has sat
down at the table
During these months, death caused by the coronavirus has sat at the table of all Honduran homes. It convenes relatives and friends to the traditional funeral rituals: wakes of24 hours or more, funeral rites followed by religious rituals, slow and silent processions to cemeteries and, nine days later, the praying of the rosary and sharing tamales, coffee, booze and card games.
Some wakes have even been interrupted by bloody killings: bands of hitmen fulfilling criminal assignments or families seeking revenge in the same place as the wake. Though relatively few, these cases have had increased notably. Not only do they force families to suspend their mourning, but also to seek refuge displaced from their homes to save their own lives.
All this death is taking its toll on the emotional stability of many people. Family and personal dramas are on the rise and suicides in particular have skyrocketed. Along with COVID deaths, murders, domestic violence, sexual violence and extortions, suicides are another figure in daily life’s scenery, A 24-year-old confessed her drama: at the end of March, when she lost her job, she moved in with her partner’s family and in the last two months none of the eight people she is living with has had a job. Today she says with parsimonious resignation: “I only have one path left: to take my life.”
When the virus leaves…
Faced with this grim panorama, there’s a lot of truth to those who say the pandemic is here to stay. The virus itself will be brought under control eventually, but its social and mental consequences, its material and spiritual traces will remain among us.
It could be that at a certain moment we reach the famous peak of the curve and infections begin to substantially decrease. And it could be that in a few months the powerful pharmaceutical industry will make a vaccine available for all the people of the planet. And we reach immunity. But the pain that has been incubated in Honduran society and the uncertainty of the future due to everything that was lost and to the new threats these loses will bring, will remain seated at the tables of all the homes.
Until there’s healing
from so many wounds
Continuing to live in environments wracked by so much depression will make it more complex to repair the damaged fabric of Honduran families, communities and society as a whole, to find ways to stablish a healthy social coexistence. We entered this period of pandemic already battered as individuals and as a society, and will come out of it much more damaged, with the risk that people who have been so hurt respond by hurting those who are near them.
To the economic and institutional change and the social justice Hondurans have long been deprived of, we must now recognize the need for emotional restitution of a people devastated by a pandemic that came on top of old, never-treated wounds. It will take a long time and many stages of healing to emerge from the individual and social trauma and begin to see life with the new eyes of still fragile but healthier human beings. Without the long process required for healing, Honduran society won’t able to even envision new horizons much less recover the energy and the faith to begin moving toward them.
It takes wo wings to fly
We have before of us a huge personal and community task that is political, economic, social and even spiritual, and poses a major a dilemma. We either turn the pandemic into an opportunity to begin anew as a society and heal wounds, or the pandemic sinks us into a terminal state of deterioration. To avoid this defeat and turn the pandemic into opportunity, all struggles are valuable and all contributions count.
To rise in flight over so much accumulated pain, all of us—men, women, young and old—need two equally valuable and important things. need psychological and spiritual accompaniment at different moments and to a greater or lesser degree. We also need to engage the struggle against corruption, impunity, inequalities and the extractive projects that threaten so many communities. To take off and fly as high as we need to, both wings will be indispensable.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the director
of the Jesuit Reflection, Investigation
and Communication Team (ERIC)
and the envío correspondent in Honduras.