Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Letter from Copan: The COVID crisis in Honduras

Casita Copan kids making puzzles during my 2016 visit
My partner and I lived and worked in Central America for the better part of five years, and I visited many development projects in Honduras and Nicaragua as part of our work with Cuso International in those years. But few projects have stuck with me like Casita Copan, in our old home town of Copan Ruinas, Honduras.

Started by a young American woman, Emily Monroe, Casita Copan began as a way of helping abandoned children in Emily's adopted home of Copan Ruinas. I've watched her lead that marvelous project for seven years now, and see it as a gold standard for addressing poverty and need not just for children removed from their families, but to prevent child abandonment. There's nothing like it in the country - or in Canada, for that matter.

As you can imagine, the spectre of COVID-19 is terrifying in a country like Honduras. BC has half the population of Honduras but more than seven times the number of ventilators in our hospitals: 732 compared to a paltry 102, and all but 12 of those 102 in private hospitals where poor people can't seek care. Because of the dire shortage of equipment, the country is on restrictive shelter-in-place rules enforced by police and the military. People aren't allowed to leave their homes.

This letter I've just received from Emily - who continues to live in Copan with her husband and young son - is a startling reminder of situations in low-income countries that have virtually no ability to deal with a pandemic. If you can, please send a donation her way. Money isn't going to get Casita Copan out of this pandemic, but it will help get things back on track more quickly when restrictions lift.

The sawdust alfombras depicting Easter
scenes that normally decorate Copan Ruinas
streets at this time of year.
First, I would like to send my very best to you and your loved ones during this difficult time, especially those who are working on the front lines, risking their lives to protect the most vulnerable. I wanted to share with you what is happening here in Honduras and at Casita Copán, as we face the unprecedented challenge of navigating a global pandemic.

I’m writing this from Copán Ruinas, Honduras, my home for the last ten years. This week is Semana Santa, “Holy Week,” traditionally a culturally rich time that draws tourists from around Honduras and the world to our little town. It’s the hottest time of the year, and in other years, we’d be taking the kids for a picnic by the river to cool off and share watermelon. Then we’d go into town to see the alfombras, brightly colored “carpets” of dyed sawdust painstakingly arranged by local artisans to create stunning designs in celebration of the holidays. 

Instead, we are inside, respecting the government’s mandatory shelter-in-place order, now in week four.

It was necessary for Honduras to take strict preventative measures in response to COVID-19 because the country’s healthcare system is the weakest in the region. The public hospital system for the entire country only has 12 ventilators; the private hospitals report approximately another 90. Because of the high rate of poverty, many people in Honduras suffer from preexisting conditions caused by poor nutrition and are particularly vulnerable. Weak infrastructure also means that many affected will be unable to access the care they need, especially those in rural communities like ours.

Here in Copán, we are currently in the eye of the storm. Safe for now, but preparing and waiting for what’s to come. We had to close our Children’s Center, the major source of food, education, recreation, and community for our children and families. We are still sending out packets of food since the majority of our moms are unable to work because of the government restrictions. While all of the kids in our Children’s Center are safe at home with their families, they are still lacking the daily support, education, and loving care that our center provides.

Here in Copán, we are not allowed to go out for a walk. Adults have one day a week (assigned by the last digit of our identification number) where we are allowed to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. Temperatures right now are in the 90s, and the majority of our Casita Copan Children’s Center families live in cramped one-room homes, often with only one bed for everyone. Mothers are unable to work because nearly all businesses are closed and movement is restricted, and if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. If you are caught outside past 6 pm, you can be arrested and forced to spend the night in jail. Rates of domestic violence have always been high in this area, and I am afraid of what the anxiety caused by this situation will provoke.

The children in our foster care program are safe and will still receive food, shelter, love, medical care, educational programs, and attention just as before, even if the routine is a bit different. So far, all of our staff are still receiving their full paycheck and benefits, though their daily responsibilities have changed due to the crisis. We will continue to do everything in our power to provide the maximum number of services possible to our children and families during this time. We don’t know what the future will hold, but we anticipate a serious blow to our local economy that will affect many families, businesses, and organizations. While this crisis will force us to make tough decisions, we will continue to uphold the values that Casita Copán was founded on – solidarity, transparency, responsibility, discipline, respect, and love.

Thank you for taking the time to read about what is going on here in Honduras. I truly hope that you and your loved ones are safe. Please reach out if you would like to hear more details about what is going on. We are busy but happy to get in touch when we can!!

One positive thing I can say that has emerged from this crisis is the realization of how interconnected we truly are. We are all in this together and we truly thank you for your support and compassion during this unprecedented time.

In solidarity,