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Central American Leaders Pivot Their Organizations to Respond to COVID-19

by Johnny McNulty

Last month, in a discussion at the Central American Donors Forum, four leaders gathered to share the experiences steering and retooling their organizations to aid communities during the 2020 pandemic.

The participants included McNulty Prize Laureate Carolina Freire, the president of Voluntarios de Panama (Panama’s largest volunteering organization); restaurateur and social business entrepreneur Xiomara Diaz, of Vital Voices Nicaragua; tech developer and voting security entrepreneur Jorge Garcia; and Dr. Mauricio Maza, the El Salvador-based president of Basic Health International. Although their organizations vary widely, they all found themselves in a position to use their platforms to address the COVID-19 crisis. They shared their insights in a roundtable discussion entitled “Leading in a Crisis: Building Long-term Equity & Resilience while Addressing Urgent Needs in Central America,” moderated by the executive director of the Central America Leadership Initiative (CALI), Claudia Salmerón.

In conversation at the 2020 Central America Donors Forum

As with everyone in 2020, these leaders’ experience of the pandemic varied widely based on their countries’ individual outbreaks and domestic political situation. Some general problems recurred throughout. Corruption, for example, makes quickly importing needed supplies like PPE more difficult. Poverty, which exacerbates almost every other issue, makes an outbreak more dangerous: close living quarters, lack of access to healthcare, the inability to stay at home long enough to wait out the disease. Ongoing economic crises in several nations made the impact of COVID on the economy even more devastating. Finally, the lack of accountability for and trust in public institutions made any response more challenging. Despite this, the panelists have all led organizations full of dedicated, smart people working in all conditions not just to bring aid and comfort to Central America, but to build a more just and resilient society going forward.

For Carolina Freire and Voluntarios de Panama, this was particularly challenging. Although leading a large organization driving a new culture of volunteerism and civil society in Panama is in some ways an ideal position to respond to COVID-19, Panama adopted one of the hemisphere’s most restrictive lockdown policies. Although this helped slow the spread of the disease, it also made providing services to affected families more difficult. Despite the challenges, Voluntarios mobilized its volunteers and resources to supply food banks. And it was tapped to advise and support the Panamanian government for volunteer recruitment for contact tracing and direct relief.

Dr. Maza underscored the grave importance of communicating to the public clearly and directly, so they know how to stay safe. He called on medical professionals’ to be the agents of communication and make sure they are using evidence-based information. “The greatest tools we have to fight this pandemic are awareness, education, and preventative measures,” said Dr. Maza. Basic Health International also made sure medical professionals were themselves informed and up-to-date, with a series of Spanish-language webinars to provide health care workers with the latest COVID research and best practices. BHI also became an operational partner for the group FUSAL’s relief efforts and converted their widespread infrastructure for HPV screening into COVID testing - providing a positive example of private-sector groups aiding government efforts in El Salvador.

The greatest tools we have to fight this pandemic are awareness, education, and preventative measures.

Mauricio Maza

Jorge Garcia left his comfort zone—the tech sector, where he is Chief Technology Officer for the software developer Hello Iconic—to work with CALI fellows in the medical field to launch an app to help medical professionals collaborate in Honduras. Although Jorge was no stranger to working on publicly-minded software (Hello Iconic makes Balloted, a secure voting program), he said the experience opened his eyes to the problems of health infrastructure in Central America. He was not alone: as airlines ground to a halt internationally and people were encouraged to stay put locally, people who previously used private health care or traveled abroad for treatment increasingly had no option besides the public health services available to everyone else. For Jorge and many others, this made clear that building better public services—in health care and in general—was not just a top priority in case people who could afford alternatives are forced to use them, but for all citizens as a matter of principle and justice.

Xiomara Diaz expressed a similar sentiment in stronger terms, saying the crisis underlined the need for the government to make sure capitalism operates under guidelines and laws that ensure people’s well-being and health are protected and prioritized. “We need to rethink how corporations are run, how businesses are run,” said Diaz, emphasizing that the need to strengthen all essential services and infrastructure was laid bare by the crisis. At Voces Vitales Nicaragua (Vital Voices Nicaragua), Xiomara works both on direct relief—which Voces Vitales began doing soon after COVID hit—and on more long-term projects that evolved as the pandemic set in. For example, they launched the Una a Una program, which aids Nicaraguan women facing unemployment with food assistance, but also with mentorship and grants to help them launch micro-businesses to first stay afloat and then prosper.

Voluntarios de Panama


For all four of these CALI Fellows, several common lessons were clear. Multi-sector collaboration is not just a good idea, but a necessary one and the connections between private companies, the public sector, and civil society organizations need to be deepened and promoted as a matter of policy. Clear and honest communication from trusted professionals that reach all citizens is vital to protecting public health. High-quality public health infrastructure is a right for all citizens, and its absence makes even the affluent vulnerable in a crisis—and makes the already-vulnerable even more so every day. The private sector has an immensely valuable role to play in assisting public efforts to protect citizens during times of great stress—and the development of robust public infrastructure during good times means future crises will place less stress on society. Finally, all four highlighted the importance of the CALI Fellowship in their development as values-based leaders and their ability to collaborate and with others across sectors and society in this crisis.

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