For the first time in 12 years, medical missionaries from the Diocese of Charleston are unable to travel to the town of San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, for their annual outreach.
The novel coronavirus forced the missionaries to cancel the two trips they have made annually since 2008. Doctors, dentists, nurses and other volunteers usually spend a week at a time in the impoverished city offering medical tests, dental care and other services, serving hundreds of people on each visit.
The missionaries’ work has been missed in the town, which is home to approximately 15,000 families, almost all of Mayan descent, said Deacon Gabriel Cuervo, director of international ministries for the Diocese of Charleston.
“The parochial clinic that the Diocese of Charleston supports has remained open during all these months, which is good,” Deacon Cuervo said. “Thankfully, there has also been just a handful of COVID-19 cases in the region so far.”
The pandemic has forced Guatemalans to live under restrictions that make those in the U.S. seem downright lenient. Since March 15, most of the country has been locked down, with restrictions on travel between cities, towns and states that only recently started to loosen.
Public transportation and schools were shut down, and there was a national curfew and a national mandatory mask law. Residents were permitted to drive only on certain days of the week or month, with scheduling based on odd/even license numbers.
Most businesses large and small shut down, and the government offered no stimulus program to help compensate for lost income.
The long lockdown has devastated much of the nation’s economy, and residents of San Pedro are suffering as a result.
“The two main industries in their area are agriculture and tourism, and that has all been almost completely shut down,” Deacon Cuervo said. “Farmers have had produce they could not get moved to other places. Ordinarily tourists would come to visit Lake Atitlan, which is right near the town, but the hotels, restaurants and other tourist businesses closed and only started to open back up on Sept. 1. The main airport into the country in Guatemala City only opened up recently.”
The Sisters of Bethany, who run a Catholic school in San Pedro, have helped provide food during the lockdown. Deacon Cuervo said a $2,000 donation that the diocese received helped feed about 75 families.
The Catholic school students, who receive support from sponsors in South Carolina, are attending classes remotely using the WhatsApp chat program, and won’t return to in-person classes until January.
Deacon Cuervo said he hopes volunteers from the diocese will be able to return to Guatemala in 2021.
To learn more about Mission San Pedro and to help with supplies for the area, visit www.missions-doc.org.