Can a Strict Quarantine Protect the Americas’ Most Densely Populated Country?

(CN) — The streets of this small city in the north of El Salvador are deserted. Everything has halted. Even the tortilla shops are shut, with signs saying, “Se suspende venta de tortillas hasta nuevo aviso” — Tortilla sales closed until further notice.

The fresh food market has lines in the morning but most of the stalls are wrapped in black plastic, the vendors long gone.

Mother Argelia and her daughter Rosa have been forced to close their tortilla shop because of El Salvador’s strict quarantine against the novel coronavirus. (Miguel Patricio photo/Courthouse News)

One woman palms tortillas outside the market. She is resigned, but willing to talk.

“We have never had such drastic measures; the ability to earn money has died. Every family is in crisis. Half the families rely on money transfers from the U.S. to survive and the money has stopped. Our sons and daughters have lost their jobs in the restaurants; even the house cleaners and office cleaners are out of work.”

She shows me a large gas griddle she used to use to cook tortillas, but today she has a large round clay griddle over a woodfire. “The wood is free, but one has to go gather it before the sun comes up.”

In this city one needs a police letter to board a bus in any direction. Only those employed in essential services qualify for such a letter: health workers, security, bank employees, food production.

A health-care worker agrees to answer a question about what she sees on the outskirts of town, where they never have had running water and half the tin and mud shacks have no electricity.

“Most people are eating nothing more than corn tortillas with salt. The lucky ones have several sacks of beans under the bed. It’s hard for big families to be locked down to a one-room house with no toilet. I make sure all the houses have sanitary gel and soap. People have never been through anything this severe, not even during the war.”

Twelve young men in this town were arrested yesterday for being on the streets without a valid purpose. They were hanging around the central bus station without masks, and the word got out.

Schools, restaurants and bars are shut nationwide and large gatherings are prohibited. These rules are enforced by police. Salvadoran newspapers and news sites reported 2,000 arrests for quarantine violations in two days last week.

People fear leaving their homes and the silence is eerie. One can hear warblers in the fruit trees — vultures conversing as they soar overhead.

An older woman reading a newspaper says hello.

“Tortilla sales closed until further notice.” (Miguel Patricio photo/Courthouse News)

“There are almost 100 containment centers in the country,” she says to a nosy reporter. “Anyone violating the quarantine is required to spend 30 days in the centers.  That’s why the streets are bare. People would rather be quarantined with family.”

It’s 4 in the afternoon and only two women are selling fruit in the market. They would rather not talk to me, and I buy six overripe bananas for 50 cents, twice the usual price. El Salvador has used the U.S. dollar for currency since 2001, to control inflation.

A pickup truck has been stacked with thin foam rubber mattresses and the driver is tying them together. “These are for the homeless folks in the next village to the east. We turned the school into a shelter. If the corona comes to these villages, we will be finished. Everyone will be infected because of our density.”

I ask him about the food situation.

“We have corn, lots of corn, we have hens so we have eggs. It’s worse in the city. If God wants it, we will survive.”

President Nayib Bukele imposed severe restrictions against Covid-19 even before the country had reported a single case. He announced the first case on Wednesday, March 18 — a countryman who had returned from Italy. Bukele had ordered the country’s only international airport closed the day before. To get to the airport today, one needs a letter from police or an embassy, and even then, one can go to the airport only in a yellow cab, one per taxi, and only with a face mask and gloves.

At latest count, Sunday, the country had confirmed 24 cases of Covid-19, and no deaths.

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in the mainland Western Hemisphere, with 785 people per square mile. This is remarkable, as most of El Salvador is rural. The average population density of major U.S. metropolitan areas is 283 per square mile.

The population density of the capital, San Salvador, is 19,100 per square mile, in a metropolitan area of 2.4 million people — about three-fourths the density of the United States’ most densely populated city, New York (26,403 per square mile).

New York City has become the epicenter of the United States’ pandemic, where Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have become fierce critics of President Trump’s unscientific, herky-jerky responses to the pandemic, and his disdain for their pleas for more medical equipment, particularly ventilators.

But New York has one of the most highly developed medical systems in the world. If Covid-19 were to establish a base in El Salvador, the results would be catastrophic.

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Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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