How El Salvador’s Virus Fight Became a Disaster

A home in El Salvador ruined by tropical storm Amanda in spring 2020. (Photo by El Faro, with permission via Courthouse News)

In parts of El Salvador the corn harvest is going full steam, but in other parts the army is fighting locusts and in all towns and cities graves are being dug. 

In hamlets alongside rivers that flow to the Pacific Ocean, houses and animals have been devastated by the floods brought by Tropical Storm Amanda on the last day of May. Two hundred million dollars in damages, including many homes washed away in pieces.

President Nayib Bukele’s successful three-month containment orders against Covid-19 were undone by a hostile National Assembly, which promoted a disaster. New cases and deaths are soaring even throughout tiny villages, the meager isolated hamlets on rocky hillsides.

Bukele issued strict stay-at-home orders and stopped public transportation in the early days of the pandemic. People 60 years old and older were furloughed from jobs and told to stay home. We were allowed to shop only once every three days. To enter a bank required a temperature check for fever, hand gel, sometimes a spray on the shoes just in case.

Bukele was heralded as the wonder-boy president of a tiny country, cutting homicides in half the first year of his presidency and successfully limiting the spread of Covid-19. In a recent international poll, he was named the No. 1 head of state in the world for his actions against the pandemic.

Too popular for the political forces against him, the discredited and corrupt FMLN, and the right-wing ARENA party, known during the civil war as the party of the death squads. Virtually all of Bukele’s emergency measure were declared violations of human rights and canceled. The Supreme Court sided with Bukele’s opponents.

Now the streets of El Salvador are filled again. Volunteers offer free masks, but many people refuse. Some say that going maskless is a human right; others do it as a sign of faith: “I don’t believe in Covid; I believe in God.” The country has reported 16,230 Covid-19 infections and 439 deaths. Both numbers are believed to be undercounts.

There are still limited business closures, the buses still do not run, and the international airport is shut. But the rightists are challenging even those health measures. So the hospitals are filling and there are severe medical staff shortages. 

A specialized team of Covid hospital veterans arrived this week from Spain, bringing medical supplies and equipment. Thirty volunteer doctors and nurses fresh from the pandemic crisis in Seville, Spain, say when they heard what the Salvadoran Supreme Court had done and that there was a staff shortage of Covid intensive care units they decided to come help.

The crisis is acute. One thousand suspected Covid cadavers have been buried in bags in cases when there was no one to buy a wooden or even a plywood box. (In some South American countries cardboard coffins are common.)

“She was just fine yesterday. She coughed a couple of times and just dropped dead. The coffin was sealed and we didn’t get a last look,” said Felipa, a neighbor.

“Last week it was Susana on the next block, and before that Minta dropped dead, in their homes. Only 10 people are permitted to accompany the Datsun pick-up to the cemetery.”

The kitchen of Felipe, a 78-year-old blind widower near the Lempa River in El Salvador. (Photo by El Faro photo, with permission via Courthouse News)

Major development banks have made emergency loan offers, but Bukele’s opponents refuse to accept them. They refuse to even call the National Assembly to meet, saying Covid makes it too dangerous. The same forces that halted Bukele’s defensive measures are now blocking the acceptance of loans to deal with the aftermath.

Surprisingly, for a country that once had a progressive Catholic Church that denounced abuses, church officials here are quiet.

Reporters with El Faro, a reputable digital news site, recently accompanied a humanitarian delivery of food and soap to a destitute cluster of shacks near the flooded Lempa River. Its report revealed conditions that shock the conscience. They described the shack of Felipe, a 78-year-old blind widower who lives alone.

“Felipe’s home is a one-room structure with walls made of clay and rods that crumble when squeezed. There is a dirt floor, like almost all houses have in these parts. Inside there are three pairs of pants and four shirts hanging from a clothesline, a Bible, a small hotplate, a charred pan, a bent spoon, an aluminum cup, an old, broken television, an equally useless radio, a stool, and a mattress where he sleeps. On his hotplate, which is his kitchen, there is only salt.”

In addition to campaigns to slow down the locust infestations, the army has been mobilized to deliver food packages to every house, every hamlet, every shack, every plastic-wrapped home. 

Another 3.5 million bags with 25 pounds of corn flour, rice, beans, canned tuna, chicken and powdered milk are being supplied to every family, with leeway to give extra to the families that need it. 

At one delivery site, a soldier with a dump truck filled with 15 tons of aid says he has seen things he never imagined existed. I asked him to describe the things that surprised him.

“I am from Sonsonate. I never knew San Vicente (province). I saw people living in mud from the big rains. I saw houses of tin with doors made with a blow torch. I saw people in rags with no shoes who limped out of hovels with unnatural smiles. People were lucky if they had one light bulb. We went to villages along the Honduran border where people make tortillas out of sorghum and salt and sleep with roosters and ducks. One old lady owned a bull she said she had inherited when her grandfather had died. Fearful of theft, she slept with the bull and told me she gets a few dollars every time he gets someone’s cow pregnant.”

I asked him to describe his home province, Sonsonate.

“Where I live it is mostly Indians in villages. The new houses have cement blocks for walls. The older houses have thatched roofs and sticks for walls. The old-fashioned people still live in houses made with walls of mud and manure.

“We know how to survive. My mother’s bed is a mattress made of beans; my father’s is made of corn. We sleep on our extra food. In my town the fear is the locusts, the big grasshoppers that are so many they eat everything green except basil.”

He said the dump trucks go as far as they can, then four-wheel pick-ups go along the 19thcentury oxcart paths to reach every soul, if they can.

Elections next February, when Bukele’s New Ideas party will run candidates for the National Assembly, will bring a new government, the soldier said. He thinks the rightists will move to Managua, Panama and Miami, and that the revolution doesn’t need guns because it has enough votes.

When asked what the revolution was against, he said, “Against corruption, against complacent priests, against the gangs and the political parties they control — against the misery.”

Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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