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Disinformation and lies escalate fear in Bolivia

The information that characterises the official Bolivian discourse is contradictory, false, perhaps hidden, even in the context of Covid-19, to the point of becoming an infodemic.


Claudia Espinoza


This deepens the anguish of a society in a permanent state of “emergency” since the coup d’état carried out on 10th November of last year.

In the field of public health, disinformation is the normal state of affairs. The case of businessman Richard Sandoval, a Covid-19 patient, shows it clearly.

Two weeks ago, President Jeanine Áñez and Luis Revilla, the Mayor of La Paz, inaugurated a hospital whose slogan was: “We are ready to face the coronavirus.”

However, on 29th March Sandoval died because that hospital was not equipped to treat the disease that has killed over 175,000 people around the world.

However, in addition, his case was not recorded in the statistics of the Servicio Departamental de la Salud de La Paz (SEDES – Departmental Health Service of La Paz), which shows that not all cases are being registered, despite the fact that the Minister of Health, Aníbal Cruz, provides figures daily as a spokesperson for the coronavirus pandemic.

On 12th March, Áñez announced to the country that “since the month of January the government has been preparing for the arrival of the coronavirus in Bolivia and therefore the rapid response teams were activated and all medical personnel trained for care were prepared”.

How are we then to understand what happened with Sandoval? Vianka, sister of the deceased, declared on her Facebook account: “Don’t believe anything, the government is lying to us”.

In several other press conferences, authorities from Áñez’ government were asked about concrete measures in the health emergency, to which they responded with their claim that during the 14 years of Evo Morales’ government (2006-2019) only soccer fields were built.

During Morales’s mandate, more than a thousand health facilities were built, most of them providing first-level care in remote regions of the country through the Hospital Plan for Bolivia (Plan Hospitales para Bolivia)

Former Health Ministers and even the former president himself came out to refute this story, and respond on Twitter not only about the hospitals, but about the materials, equipment and the budget that was allocated for their efforts.

This framework of spin which attempted to manipulate the official account, in addition to not being true, did nothing to alleviate the situation.

In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the third victim of the pandemic spent 12 hours lying in the trauma-shock room of a hospital.

When his remains were transferred to the judicial morgue that operates in the same hospital, “the officials were told to leave, alleging that the place was contaminated with Covid-19”. The order had to come from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to remove the body.

Once again it was revealed that no state agency was informed or prepared to act.

The events unfold according to an improvised script that reveals a spiral of uncontrolled, infected, confirmed and suspected cases.

More precisely, there is under-reporting so that reliable information is not being provided to the population. And even the family of the “first” deceased victim confirms that the death of their relative was not due to coronavirus.

No public health agency provided a medical certificate, and the son of the deceased told a radio station that they were threatened in the hospital if they continued to insist; they cremated the body, no one knows where.

In recent weeks, Bolivia appeared first in the table of the World Health Organization – Pan American Health Organization (WHO-PAHO) with the highest level of mortality of the coronavirus.

According to its acting representative in this country, Alfonso Tenorio, “the fact is that few diagnostic tests have been done, so the number of positive cases must be greater than those recorded”.

Bolivia is the country in the region with the highest mortality, with a rate of 6.5%; Paraguay follows, with 4.62%; then Brazil, with 3.59% and Ecuador with 3.35%.

No authority talks about it, and the infodemic froth continues to grow in public opinion.

To mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and of a slowdown in the Bolivian economy since last November, the government announced social and economic measures.

Again, the contradictory official discourse generated more confusion: first they offered family hampers for 1.6 million homes; they then changed this and offered ready cash for a group of one million elderly, pregnant and disabled adults to be paid through banks.

The handouts are just 400 bolivianos ($57), an amount that is ridiculous for a family and, moreover, in a country where  banking services are not available for the majority of people.

Also announced in the second week of April was the family voucher of 500 bolivianos (about $72) per child attending pre-kindergarten, kindergarten (preschool) or primary level education in public system schools.

The scope of these “coronabonos” (coronavirus award payments) neglects a large part of the population that lives on trade and services, and so does not qualify for them.

For them, there is no response from the government.

The people who are in the leader’s priorities are those in uniform: Áñez has just approved a salary increase between 450 and 470 bolivianos (just over $68) to the police, in the midst of the health emergency. No official spokesperson wants to report on the matter.

News of donations and loans are circulating, with exorbitant figures: 100 billion dollars from international cooperation, five million euros from the European Union, 21.5 billion euros from Italy, 4.5 million dollars from Japan and a loan of 1.5 billion dollars from the Central Bank.

Who makes this information transparent? A veil has once again been drawn over public accounts, like in the 1990s. . (PL)

(Translated by Hannah Phelvin) – Photos: Pixabay

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