Contra Corriente

President’s COVID-19 test results concealed by Health Ministry

The Ministry of Health failed to release a copy of the test results in which Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández allegedly tested positive for COVID-19 after Contracorriente requested it, based on a Institute of Access to Public Information (IAIP) requirement. Now, the commissioner’s board of the IAIP has issued a legal resolution for the handing over of the information. If not complied with, the case will be brought before the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR). 

By Fernando Silva

Translation: Emma Beavins

Photograph courtesy of the Presidential House website

On June 18, Contracorriente solicited a copy of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s rapid and protein c-reactive (PCR) COVID-19 tests via the System of Electronic Information of Honduras (Sielho). The request was made following a public broadcast on radio and television by the president on June 16 where he said that he had his wife Ana García Carías, had received a positive diagnosis from lab tests. Later, the Executive Office of the President made an announcement that the positive test was a PCR. 

This same announcement indicated that the president and the first lady were taking the MAIZ treatment. This treatment, composed of Microdacyn, Azithromycin, Ivermectin and Zinc, is one of the health ministry’s recommendations to lower the viral load of patients with COVID-19. Six days later, in a transparency report, then minister of communications and presidential strategy María Andrea Matamoros reported that the government had allocated 50,000 lempiras to buy medicine for MAIZ and CATRACHO — another treatment approved by the government — in their first phase of acquisition. 

The United States’ Center for Veterinary Medicine of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has expressed concern about the MAIZ treatment. In a statement, they indicated that “they need additional testing to determine if ivermectin could be safe and effective to prevent or treat the coronavirus or COVID-19.”

Hernández was admitted to the Military Hospital the morning after the public announcement. This precautionary step was taken due to exam results that detected “mild infiltrates in his lungs,” according to Francis Contreras, doctor and spokesperson of the National System of Risk Assessment. 

“His general state of health is good, however, today’s discoveries made the medical team, composed of pulmonologists, intensive care specialists and cardiologists, recommend hospitalization,” Contreras said. 

Five days later, on June 23, the health ministry categorized the president’s test results as classified; denying the request and violating the Law of Access to Public Information and international standards. The justification, sent by the Department of Transparency, cited “Article 3 Section 7 of the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information, which refers to personal data like those related to state of health, physical or mental, personal or family assets, and anything related to honor, personal or family privacy, or self image.”

While hospitalized, Hernández participated in an online conversation with agricultural producers, and passed a reform of the Law of Assistance to the Productive Sector. The reform declared an extension for the tax returns of small businesses. Hernández was absent from his in-person duties while hospitalized, yet he did not delegate his functions to a presidential designee, in the middle of a national emergency. Finally, on July 2, Hernández was discharged from the hospital and said in a press conference, “We have passed another test that God has given us. I am happy for the moment.” He closed by stating, “from the hand of God, who talks of fear?” That day, Honduras reported 49 deaths from the virus nationwide. 

On July 7, Contracorriente filed an appeal for review against the Ministry of Health. It indicated that, firstly, the solicited information does not threaten to harm the president; he himself announced the results from the lab. Secondly, not obtaining the information harms the public who dealt with the absence of the president for 15 days. Moreover, it pointed out that if the result was negative, it implies political and administrative responsibility to the whole country.

The motion for review was received by the commissioners’ board. On July 15, Hermes Moncada, lawyer and IAIP head commissioner, signed a request in which he ordered Alba Flores, secretary of state in the Health Office, to provide the information in a maximum of three days. If not, the document noted, “sanctions established by the Law of Transparency and Access to Public Information will be imposed.”

Finally, the request was sent to the health ministry on Aug. 5 and was returned one day later with the same justification that denied the information initially. In light of this, no punishment was handed down, so Contracorriente requested that the administrative sanctioning process under the Law of Transparency be opened.

Faced with this suit, the IAIP Unit of Legal Services issued statute USL-356-2020 to file the appeal. This prompted the commissioners’ board’s resolution on Oct. 30 that again ordered “to hand over the information immediately, in a format that makes the solicited information available,” specifying that public declarations made by Hernandez determined consent. The communication of this resolution was released last Monday, but at the time of publication, Contracorriente has not received any calls from the health ministry. 

If the latest resolution isn’t complied with, the IAIP will transfer the case to the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR) to execute the resolution and fine the head of the health ministry, Alba Flores. The fine will be between 36,000 lempiras (1400 USD) and 600,000 lempiras (24,000 USD).

Vladimir Mendoza, lawyer and commissioner secretary of IAIP, said that it is unclear why Hernández refuses to present the results of the PCR test, given that candidates from other political parties have made their results known in recent months.

Mendoza explained that the Law of Transparency “does not allow us to go that little bit further” as they had the intention to carry out the administration of the case for delivering the information, themselves. He pointed out that there is an obstruction in the law that gives these exclusive powers to the PGR.

“We hope that the PGR works in accordance with the importance of the case, because we have seen that many appeals for review that the PGR receives are not filed in the corresponding courts,” he said, adding that they they were expecting a reform of the Law of Transparency soon that gives constitutional status to the institution.

Mendoza explained that since the commissioners’ board took office a year ago, more than 400 cases have been referred to the PGR. However, he pointed out that they lack the technical resources and people for the job. “They have not approved a budget for us nor for the biosecurity team,” he explained.

The Ministry of Transparency that will control the president

 

Though the two events aren’t connected, the same day that the IAIP communicated the resolution of the session to the health ministry, María Andrea Matamoros Castillo — daughter of David Matamoros Batson, head of the National Telecommunications Commission (Conatel) — was named head of the new Ministry of Transparency created by executive decree PCM 111-2020. It clarified that, “This ministry will produce general guidelines for transparency and accountability, where compliance by institutions of public power will be mandatory.”

The executive decree authorizes the creation of three management offices and a presidential office that will centralize citizen complaints of corruption and will advise the president on topics of transparency. Private and civil institutions like the National Council of Anticorruption (CNA) and the Honduran Council of Private Businesses (Cohep) expressed their dissatisfaction with what they described as an action aimed at reducing their capacity to fight against corruption. 

Moreover, the High Court of Audits (TSC) expressed concern regarding the “dual existence and subrogation of functions of the Ministry of Transparency, that constitutionally falls under the TSC and other institutions and instances of state.” They stated that if the decree is not corrected, they will pursue legal action to guarantee respect of their powers as a supervisory body.

Mendoza stated that the more concerning thing for them is “if a parallel institution is created that is able to exercise the same functions, the IAIP is going to lose the credibility they need. It will confuse the citizenry and, moreover, who will be able to guarantee that the information that this institution receives will be accounted for and will not be altered or eliminated?”

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