Crunch Time in El Salvador’s Fight Against Pandemic

The nationwide lockdown in El Salvador is set to expire at midnight Friday, and political opponents of the popular president have vowed to permit no more extensions, despite rising numbers of Covid-19 infections.

Streets are empty in a small town in El Salvador, but the nationwide lockdown was set to expire at midnight Friday. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

(CN) — A helicopter with a wooden statue of the Virgin of Fatima and a television camera crew flew over each municipality this week in El Salvador, where the nationwide lockdown expires at midnight Friday.

No processions in honor of the Virgin were permitted due to the quarantine, but Catholic Church officials found a way to connect the faithful with the Virgin of Fatima, who allegedly appeared in Portugal one day 100 years ago to three peasant girls near the town of Fatima.

Salvadorans were among the first Latin Americans to go into quarantine due to the threat posed by the coronavirus and the first to shut down its international airport. It was the first to mandate confinement for all who crossed its borders — in luxury hotel rooms suddenly emptied by the crisis.

Infection rates were low when at the end of April the right-wing ARENA party threatened to terminate the quarantine via the Legislature, but the Catholic Archbishop pleaded with politicians to extend the lockdown for two weeks and the National Assembly relented. The two-week extension expires at midnight Friday and all major political parties are refusing to authorize any further restrictions on movement or economic activity.

That leaves the popular young President Nayib Bukele in a quandary, as he won election as head of a new party, Nuevas Ideas, which controls no seats in the national Legislature.

So while neighboring Guatemala is in a total 24-hour curfew throughout the country, El Salvador appears to be about to cancel the health precautions in place since mid-March.  This at a time that infections and deaths are just beginning to multiply, that is, the curve is starting to rise dramatically.

Surprisingly, even the Jesuit University here has been critical of the health precautions as an infringement on the political rights of those who wish to defy the quarantine and be in the streets without masks.

From the four main right-wing parties who control the congress and the courts to the gangs who control the ghettos and the countryside the demands to rescind the quarantine and reopen the economy seem poised to succeed.

The collapse of the informal economy has meant there’s nothing to extort and the gangs’ income has tanked. Likewise, the export sector with its textile factories shut invoke the words of President Donald Trump in encouraging defiance of health precautions so that the jobs will return.

One right-wing senator tweeted that the capitalist economy should not be sacrificed to save a few deadbeat seniors, as there are too many “mummies” in the streets. Such harsh attitudes are common in El Salvador among the ruling class, whose income has evaporated.

Meanwhile, President Bukele implores the political parties to prolong the shutdown to avoid the catastrophes in Ecuador and Brazil and breaking out again in Chile, Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Here in the north of El Salvador, on the Lempa River, gang members lit fireworks in celebration of the hope their political allies in the National Assembly will end the quarantine that has confined them and impoverished them, and called on the people to stop wearing masks and again respect the authority of the gangs.

Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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