Friday, April 24, 2020


I will not get into the midst of a conflict over what exactly the resident of the White House said about bleach and COVID-19. I do not have the time or the energy or the desire to get into a senseless debate over what he said, what he meant to say, or some other debate by non-medical personnel over ways to prevent the spread of the virus or to help people recuperate from this deadly disease.

But I want to share when a few thoughts about a time I drank water with bleach.

Haciendita II, 2019
In 1992, I spent about seven months in El Salvador, mostly in the parish of Suchitoto where I helped the Salvadoran pastor and the five US women religious working there. I was assigned to one of the remotest areas of the parish, about a four hour walk from the town of Suchitoto. I spent most of my time there in the house of Esteban and Rosa Elbia and their children, usually spending four or more days sleeping there, while going out several days to other nearby communities. I slept in a hammock so that I wouldn’t take someone’s bed. I brought some food stuffs with me when I came and I ate tortillas and salty beans several times a day.

Esteban Clavel and Rosa Elbia
Every morning I heard Esteban calling his daughters to get up and go for water – about 30 to 45 minutes away. The sons also got up to begin to prepare for working in the fields or in other projects.

But every day water had to be brought in for basic needs.

I had a water bottle with a filter and so I avoided most intestinal parasites. I thought it was because of the filter but there was another factor.

The water always tasted a little funny. Only later did I realize that the family was putting a little bleach in the water to purify it. It seemed to work, though I would not recommend it now.

While I was there the community began working on a project to bring water in from the mountain. The men went up in groups to dig the trenches for the pipes. I joined them a few days for the hard work under the hot sun.  

Digging trneches for the water line, on Guazapa, 1992
Before I left the project was finished and there was a spigot with water in the middle of the community. I remember walking down the road and seeing a line of women with their water jugs lined up to get the precious water.

Last year I visited my friends. Esteban had died a few years before, a victim of chagas, a disease that comes from insects that burrow in dirt floors and dirt walls. But I saw Rosa Elbia and several of her children and grandchildren. It was a real joy to be with them. I had hoped to get back to see them this year, but we’ll see.

When I stopped in the house where I had stayed – now much nicer, one of the daughters offered me a glass of water. They have a new water project and the water is drinkable. No more bleach. They don’t even have to boil it, since they have a good source of water and a good chlorinating system for the village. No more 5 am calls to go out to fetch water. No more putting bleach in the water. Turn on the spigot and drink.

It should be clear that this is the way to deal with a real human need – long term solutions, communities working together to guarantee the community’s health, working with professionals in science and water supply.

It should be clear that I am not advocating using bleach, but when people are desperate and look for ways to survive, they look for simple solutions. Looking for short cuts can be dangerous. In addition, short cuts let us avoid asking the really important questions.

For the people of Haciendita II, the issue is community solidarity. What we all need these days.

We also need to remember that after this pandemic subsides, what we need to do is to build a world where people have decent water, decent health care, and decent education and where people begin to work together for the good of all, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. That will mean that we begin to put the person, made in God’s image, at the center of our lives.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

COVID-19 in the hills of Copán

I am an introvert, but this isolation is a bit difficult.

Yet I think it might not be as hard here as it is in parts of the US – at least for me, privileged as I am. I have food, water, electricity, internet – and neighbors. I have gas for cooking (thanks to the kindness of our pastor) and tomatoes (thanks to a project of a friend here in Plan Grande). I’ve also talked over the internet with two friends in the US and Palestine. I have flour and yeast and so can bake bread.

Sure, there are difficulties. I have few vegetables, no cereal or granola, and I can get to Dulce Nombre once a week. There are no restaurants or grocery stores that can deliver take-out or groceries. There’s not even a good grocery store in Dulce Nombre. I am rationing my yogurt and cheese since these are hard to come by in Dulce Nombre. 

I do have water and I can get purified water from a nearby small store – and I’ve had young guys carry the large bottle back for me – at least part of the way.

I also have internet, which may or may not be a curse. In a desire to connect with folks as well as to get information on what is happening, I spend too much time on the internet and, to avoid rage, I have to avoid reading any number of posts, especially about “leadership” in the US.

It's also been very hot - in the 90s - and extremely dry. I waked to the parish coffee field this morning and some of the plants look wilted and there are a lot of yellow leaves.

But what’s happening here. The statistics here are probably misleading. As of last night, there have been 494 cases of positives from tests. 46 have died and 29 have recovered. There are a number of people hospitalized and some in ICU, but it appears that many are quarantining at home.

The majority of cases have been in the San Pedro Sula area with the Tegucigalpa area not far behind. There has been one case here in the department of Copán, but the woman had visited another part of Honduras. She was hospitalized in the Santa Rosa hospital but recovered and returned home, to the welcome of neighbors.

The ratio of deaths to cases seems rather high – almost 10%. Yet there have been so few persons tested that the ratio may not be as high in the general population, though my guess is that the situation is extremely serious in parts of the north coast around San Pedro Sula. There are private firms that will be beginning to test this week and we may have better statistics.

The government has taken this fairly seriously. We have virtual lock down. We can go out to a neighborhood small store (tienda or pulpería) but we can’t circulate, especially in vehicles, only once a week. Then we can go to banks or grocery stores at certain hours. We senior citizens (over 60) have an hour designated only for us in the morning but still the lines are long.

If we go out, we have to have masks – and it appears that the government is now giving out masks! The vendors are supposed to be masked and gloved, but I have seen some vendors without gloves and some even without masks. I just saw a facebook post from a private group that is bringing goods to poor people in the municipality of Dulce Nombre. I could only see one person wearing a mask.

There is no public transport and so it is difficult for people in the countryside to get to the larger towns for purchases. The government, through the municipalities, is distributing basic food supplies and some soap and bleach. The idea is to get this to the neediest, though some are complaining that not everyone is getting something.

My experience in the municipality where I live, Concepción, Copán, is that this is not easy. First of all, there is the temptation to use the aid in a partisan way to support the parties in power. I have seen photos of politicians and military personnel distributing the aid in other parts of the country. Here, municipal workers are doing it and seem to avoid a partisan approach. (See my previous post.) Secondly, the people are so used to getting stuff free from the government that some look upon the aid as a gift from politicians. When I accompanied the disbursement two weeks ago, when people said thank you, I tried to tell that that this is what is due them. Thirdly, an issue will be availability of goods.

But a very real issue on the national level is the corruption. It seems that some goods were bought at twice the market price. That probably means that someone is making a killing – and I use that word deliberately – in this crisis. The government supposedly cracked down on the most obvious case (brought to light by an alternative communications network). But the problem still remains.

The situation of medical workers is precarious. There are reports that they are not getting the bio-security resources they need. A lot of money has come into Honduras, but the question is where is it going.

There are a few bright spots.

Yesterday a large medical brigade from Cuba arrived with Cuban doctors and nurses, as well as Hondurans studying medicine in Cuba. From what I can determine, they will be helping in the most desperate areas.

Another surprise is the caliber of the nightly press conferences of government officials. They come across as professional, though one must keep a critical stance in terms of what they are saying.

Last night I watched ten minutes of the Honduras president’s address, explaining what was being done. It was professional. No rants, no blaming someone else, no threats to opponents. Though I am very critical of the politicization and the militarization and the concentration of power that his government has brought, I found that he was composed. What a welcome relief to what I’ve seen of the president of a country to our north.

Where will all this go?

My guess is that we’ll be on curfew for a few more weeks, at the very least. It might even be a month or two.

My concern is that people will get sloppy in terms of prevention of spread of COVID-19. The practice of social spacing and of wearing masks is not taken as seriously as I think it should be, and not only by the poor. I fear some people are cutting corners and may be opening ourselves to endangering others – if not by our actions, possibly by the example that our actions seem to give that make social precautions seem less important.

In the meantime, I read, I write, I cook, I pray.

And I wait – in hope.


UPDATE: I found out that there have been 2535 as of April 22, 2020.

Monday, April 13, 2020

living with the curfew - the week after Easter

I’m an introvert. I have lived by myself for about fifty years. At times I did have someone living with me for short periods; I did have two roommates during my two years of grad school at Boston College; I took care of Dad at home in Ames for the last two or so years of his life; and I had a few people stay with me there for a few months. But I’m used to staying at home alone.

I like to have people over and have loved cooking big meals. I often did this for groups of students when I worked in campus ministry in Ames. But when they left, I turned the music on loud and washed the dishes – by myself.

Being alone, you can decide what you are going to do and don’t have to always plan with someone else.

One of the challenges for me of being a deacon and working in the church is that, though one might live alone, it is important to be available, to be willing to change schedules to meet the needs of people.

And so the curfew we are under has not been super hard for me. I’ve finished four books and am in the middle of three more. I’ve cleaned a few rooms of the house. I’ve made soup and baked bread. I’ve been in contact with a few friends by telephone and Skype or Zoom. It’s been a little lonely, but not overly difficult. Most of all I miss the human contact.


We’ve been under various levels of curfew for the past month or so. Right now we’re permitted to go out to banks and markets only once a week – on a day determined by the last digit of our id. You can go out other mornings to the local small stores (called tiendas or pulperías here.) I’ve gone out to get water or eggs and went to Dulce Nombre once to get cooking gas and a few groceries. My next chance will be this coming Thursday. 

Some communities are closing themselves off almost completely, including Santa Rosa de Copán and, closer to home, San Agustín. They let emergency vehicles and selected and inspected vehicles to bring in provisions. Towns and villages have set up road blocks at the entrance to some areas. The vehicles and persons are sprayed with a disinfectant. There is one spray for people (gente) and another for vehicles. I have no idea how effective they are. My pickup and I got sprayed several times last week.

Otherwise we’re confined. The message is “Quedate en casa – Stay at home!”

I believe in the efficacy and importance of the curfew and have been a bit upset when I see people gathering together. The concept of “social distancing” is, I believe, almost completely foreign to the Honduran culture. I expect that there will be more governmental restrictions to try to curtail the interaction and prevent the spread of the virus, due to the lack of social distancing.

I’ve worn a mask at times and often warned people about getting too close to one another. One reaction I’ve had from two guys is that this is because of “fear.” That may be a macho reaction or a reaction of young guys who have no sense of taking precautions. But it is troubling. Yet there are some who take it seriously.


Yet last week I went out for three days to several communities, accompanying some people from the municipality to distribute a bag of food and a bag of soaps and bleach to poor families.

This has been a very interesting experience. I'm glad my pick up is in good shape (and I had a tank full of fuel).

Our pastor, Padre German, had insisted ,when he met with the mayors, that the aid must not be politicized and that it must go to the neediest.

The mayor of Concepción did not go with us – which to me is a good sign, though the assistant mayor was with us several times. Many volunteers did wear the government employee vests, but I did not hear them talk about the aid in a partisan way. At least in our area, the bags with aid had no government propaganda in them or on the bags, as I’ve seen in other distribution of bags to the needy. They sometimes walked a distance to deliver the bags to the families.

What was most interesting for me was the attitude of these young workers, most of whom I already knew, though not well. I found out a few things: two days I worked with a young couple from a nearby town whose young twins call me ‘Ho! Ho!” -  thinking I am Santa Claus!

Driving the workers around, I listened as they talked about the distribution. They wanted to make sure that the neediest get the help they need. They had lists that local leaders had prepared, but at times they questioned them. They also sometimes made decisions on the spot to benefit the neediest.

This did not go over well in a couple of places. Some people wanted the aid to be given equally to all. But only so much aid was available. Yet over 1500 households were helped.

My guess is that there will be further distributions in two weeks. I hope I can still help them in all this.


Last night the government reported 397 cases with 25 deaths. But the numbers are probably higher. There are reports that some 19 or so sailors who were flown in from Dubai via Brazil have tested positive but have not been included in the government statistics. There is one reported case in the department of Copán where I live.

The government is also telling people to wear masks when they go out in public. But how will people be able to find them or buy them or even make them. There was a report that the government is going to be distributing masks in San Pedro Sula where there is the highest incidence of cases of COVID-19.

A real worry is hunger. Honduras has a poverty rate of 65%, according to the World Bank. With business closed and those in the informal economy (selling food, vegetables, and more on the street) virtually shut down, how are the people going to eat.

The government has set aside funds for providing emergency food stuffs through the municipalities. There seems to be some problems in a few areas and in the San Pedro Sula area there have been protests of hungry people. Here in the parish where I live the distribution seems to be going smoothly, though slowly in some places. The food is meant for the neediest, but some people are complaining and saying that all should get the aid. This may lead to some problems in future distribution of food stuffs.

There is some control of access to towns, as noted above. 

In at least one place, the road has been completely obstructed to prevent vehicles from passing through.

But, there are some people who are objecting to getting their cars or motorcycles sprayed. This could lead to some violence.

Another concern is how long people can endure the curfew. This is especially problematic since we are in the dry season and one of the hottest times of the year. It's been up to 89 in the share, here in Plan Grande. But a friend in La Entrada told me it was close to 99 there. I cannot begin to imagine how the people in San Pedro Sula and the northern coast are enduring temperatures close to 100 degrees or even higher.

But a really serious issue is the lack of medial supplies and infrastructure to response. Some medical personnel in San Pedro Sula have been protesting this, according to one report.


My fear is that COVID-19 may spread due to the lack of control by the authorities, the lackadaisical approach of many people, the lack of social distancing, and the lack of medical support. I hope that I am wrong.

In the meantime, I keep encouraging people to stay at home. I’ve had phone calls about religious education classes and Sunday celebrations. I try to explain the danger and the measures that may prevent the spread of the virus and tell them to wait.

What more?

Wait, patiently and attentively, ready to respond when needed.

And pray.