Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

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Global Health Blogs with Professor Swahn

Guatemala and COVID-19

April 2, 2021 · No Comments · Uncategorized

COVID-19 has affected many countries across the globe. Many countries have had varying levels of health protocols in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some countries partially quarantined and/or isolated themselves while others went into complete lockdown. Guatemala is one of the biggest countries located in Central America that has one of the highest health disparities between poor and rich individuals. In this report, I will be writing about Guatemala’s background, its health situation, statistics, and how it is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as recommendations on future vaccination steps.
Guatemala is one of the more heavily populated countries located in Central America, and unfortunately basic healthcare depends on socioeconomic status and location. It is a mountainous country bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Guatemala also has many volcanoes, and three of them are active. Due to the varying geographical features, there is a mixture of rural settlements and urban cities. Guatemala’s population has grown drastically from 8 million in 1990 to around 17.8 million in 2019 and many of these individuals live in Guatemala City where there is more opportunity for work. Unfortunately, this means that many doctors work primarily in the city and those living in rural areas have less access to basic health care necessities.
According to health data, lower respiratory infections have caused the most deaths in the past 10 years. Other communicable diseases that are common are diarrheal diseases and neonatal disorders. There are more cases of non-communicable diseases in Guatemala such as heart disease, diabetes, interpersonal violence, stroke and stomach cancer. The wide ranging communicable/non communicable disease data was interesting to read, and I decided to investigate risk factors that drive these problems. Health data shows that malnutrition and alcohol use are at the top of the list along with air pollution. High blood pressure and dietary risks were also listed, but tobacco was at the bottom of list. At first glance, I believed that tobacco use was higher due to lower respiratory infection and not air pollution. I have always thought air pollution to plague very industrialized nations, not a country that is covered in forests, mountains, and volcanoes. Fortunately, both my mother and father were born in Guatemala and I was able to interview them to find out more about the health situation.
My father, Enrique Argueta, was born in Guatemala in 1962 and lived there until he was around 20 years old before migrating to the United States. He also keeps in close contact with his mother and my extended family that still reside in Guatemala. I was able to ask him about his experience with their health services and I was able to ask him to speak to my family in Guatemala on their experience with COVID-19 as well. Before I began the interview, I informed him of the information gathered on Guatemala’s death rates, communicable/non-communicable diseases, and COVID-19 statistics as well. My first concern was lower respiratory infections being the leading cause of death over 10 years, specifically how COVID-19 could impact that population. Enrique explains that lower respiratory infections are tied to many factories in the country, as well as their lack of standards. He goes on to say, “these lower respiratory problems are caused by exposure to specific chemicals…individuals who work in these factories work for two years and then told to leave until they’ve been seen by a doctor to make sure they can continue to work”. The owners of these factories tend to not hire anybody over a specific age and target younger individuals to avoid any health legality due to work conditions. Another reason that Enrique mentioned for the high rates of respiratory issues is the use of fires for cooking. He explains that due to the varying levels of economic standing, many people would depend on fires for their cooking needs. His mother, my grandma, that had been recently seen in one of their smaller “hospitals” was told by a doctor that this was the cause for her respiratory problems.

These individuals who have respiratory infections or who are likely to pursue an occupation that is high risk for illness, are also at risk for complications with COVID-19. Unfortunately, many individuals have no choice but to work in these conditions to support their families. As mentioned earlier, Guatemala’s population has at least doubled, and now suffers from overpopulation in urban areas. Enrique explains that many of the younger generations that go the city for work, also take care of their elderly family members at their place of residence. In relation to COVID-19 and its rapid transmission, I believe that the younger workforce should be among the first individuals that are provided vaccinations along with healthcare workers. My father kept in close contact with my extended family during the pandemic, and he was told that because Guatemala had gone into a lockdown so quickly, they were able to avoid widespread transmission of COVID-19. He continues to speak about the government, specifically how they shut down whole towns along with strict nighttime curfews to keep people at home. The citizens were also only allowed to purchase necessities between certain hours of the day. While Guatemala maintained a relatively low number of cases in comparison to other countries, 193,834, many families suffered without a source of income as there were no government assistance in the form of what we know as a “stimulus”. In fact, my father was told that they had local raffles for food gift cards and some families were given one to two months of their electricity bill paid.
According to health data, there were only 6,823 deaths in Guatemala. A number that my father and my extended family laugh at. He explains that while data relays specific numbers, the scenes tell a completely different story. Guatemala is a very religious country and many families that lost loved ones from COVID-19 would bribe workers in mass graveyards to allow the family to bury their own. The numbers were extremely skewed in his opinion, but he did agree with how many people were able to recover from COVID-19. While many people lost their life to COVID-19, mask wearing, social distancing, and the immediate shutdown of their country were key points to the low transmission rate. Enrique explains that the people in Guatemala took the threat very seriously due to the immediate economic impact. Many of the younger individuals were not able to work, and many live life paychecks to paycheck. Many who were not able to reach a hospital or health clinic, chose home remedies to assist with COVID symptoms. There were also communities that joined together to provide the people with home kits that could help alleviate symptoms for the milder cases.

Guatemala is a country with a history of government corruption and a normal military presence. It is imperative that they receive enough vaccinations, and it is vital that it is used for high-risk individuals as well as the front-line workers. The current healthcare situation is poor, and many pay orbital prices out of pocket to be seen a private location, or they bribe their way into being seen etc. Many Guatemalans are used to home remedies and local clinics rather than depend on a vaccination from a major organization, let alone the government. I believe the best course of action is to allow health care workers along with the general working class to get vaccinated first. According to my father, military presence is quite normal and eases tension with the citizens. Instead of letting the government handle vaccination operations, another organization should travel to high-risk locations and coordinate with the military to aid.
Guatemala will not be the only country to need these kinds of methods to vaccinate its citizens. The COVID-19 vaccination process will vary from country to country depending on its needs, population groups, and epidemiologic profiles. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic to create new organizations to target health disparities across the globe, but I hope that we take steps forward from this historic situation instead of backward.


Argueta, G., & Argueta, E. (2021, March 30). Guatemala and COVID-19. personal.

IHME. (2017, September 15). Guatemala. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.


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