Working Paper
COVID-19 and the state: Nicaragua case study

Unlike Latin American peers, and contrary to World Health Organization recommendations, Nicaragua eschewed lockdowns and other common strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Analysts have since demonstrated how Nicaraguan authorities dramatically under-reported the number of deaths and infections that resulted (though a dearth of data complicates cross-country comparisons).

Questions remain about the government’s decision to pursue a hands-off strategy in the first place. This paper argues that rather than optimizing for fewer cases and deaths, the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega instead attuned its pandemic response to other, political and economic, variables.

In the context of a pre-existing sociopolitical crisis that threatened the regime’s legitimacy and territorial control, policy-makers were primarily interested in safeguarding macroeconomic indicators and fomenting a sense of normalcy among the populace. For related reasons, they restricted public health information and criminalized citizen-led public health efforts.

In the Nicaraguan case, government and leadership mattered more than state capacity in determining the public health response.