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Anonymous hack exposes Nicaraguan government secret COVID-19 data

A man wearing a face mask attends a non restricted bullfight on August 22, 2020 in Granada, Nicaragua.

INTI OCON/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By JAKE KINCAID | Miami Herald | Published: August 29, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — The Nicaraguan government has consistently reported some of the lowest coronavirus infection numbers in Central America despite never having implemented quarantine measures. Doctors and international health organizations have expressed doubt that the government was publishing the true numbers.

Now, the former director of epidemiology of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, Alvaro Ramirez, who is currently living in Ireland, says there is proof that the government has been systematically lying about the spread of COVID-19: The hackers group Anonymous, a global collective known for its attacks of government institutions and their use of Guy Fawkes masks to hide their identities, stole the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health's COVID-19 database and posted it online under a Twitter account.

The "Lorian Synaro" account declared that "government lies will not remain secret anymore," and posted the database on Aug. 21. This isn't the first time the Synaro name has been used after hacks of the Nicaraguan government. On May 14 Synaro posted that Anonymous had taken government websites offline. The recent hack contains the entire health ministry data set of coronavirus test results along with detailed patient information from the beginning of the pandemic in Nicaragua until Aug. 10.

After extensive verification of the database, Ramirez and a group of researchers he is working with concluded that "from day one they were misrepresenting and misreporting COVID-19 in Nicaragua in a completely intentional way," Ramirez said. "The spread was allowed to continue freely when cases were at the moment present in the whole country. It is a completely erratic decision of the government not to inform the people of Nicaragua about how the COVID was spreading when it was spreading. They used the chance to manipulate the information to give the sensation that the government is in control."

On Aug. 11, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA) reported 3,413 confirmed cases of COVID-19 while their own leaked database showed 10,524 confirmed cases the previous day; 52% of tests were positive. A high positivity rate indicates that testing isn't widespread enough to capture the true extent of the virus, and the World Health Organization recommends that countries have below 5% before easing quarantine measures.

The Nicaraguan government has not addressed the hack or responded to the data. MINSA officials did not respond to emails requesting comment.

On Feb. 28th, MINSA announced that Nicaragua would not implement any kind of quarantine. On March 24, just 10 days after holding a massive march called "Love in the time of COVID-19," ignoring the recommendations of global health organizations, Vice President Rosario Murillo told the nation over the radio that "today on March 24, all of the COVID-19 tests we have done ... were negative. The two imported cases we were already aware of are being responsibly followed."

The next day MINSA director Dr. Carlos Saenz said in a press release that there were still only two positive cases and that "we don't have local transmission."

Leaked data provided by Ramirez shows that on March 24 MINSA had already found 14 cases, eight of which were located in the capital of Managua and the rest spread across the country, one as far away as the Caribbean coast.

The deception continued throughout the pandemic. Administrators reprimanded doctors in public hospitals for using personal protective gear, saying they were causing unnecessary panic. In May, more than 700 Nicaraguan doctors signed a letter demanding that the Nicaraguan government allow doctors to use PPE and implement additional safety protocols in hospitals and stop persecuting healthcare workers who spoke out about the prevalence of the virus.

On May 12 MINSA had reported only 25 cases while their database had 1,711 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 928 of whom were healthcare workers.

Ramirez said that the database was poorly managed with many entry errors but that there was enough personal information for those who received COVID-19 tests to verify the authenticity of the data.

"There is no reason why the government couldn't have a daily report informing the public," Ramirez said. "What you see in the database is a lot of errors. It wasn't designed to be used to stop the spread of COVID-19."

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