Poverty in the Time of Corona: Victims of a Sickness That is Yet to Exist

Photograph Source: Alison McKellar – CC BY 2.0

In the days on COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, we sometimes forget that the virus is not a “natural disaster,” nor does it affect all people equally. While we can all get sick (which is why there is so much attention on COVID-19), the virus is in no way an equal opportunity perpetrator, meaning that it discriminates in how it affects people living in extreme poverty. Of course, this selective effect has nothing to do with its genetic makeup, but is related to the discriminatory social system of El Salvador. This discrimination, the resulting vulnerabilities, and the recent emergency measures create thousands of victims of the virus at the time when there is still not a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country.

Given this situation, it seems like mockery when schools discuss putting their classes online or when national and international institutions hand out instructions of how to wash your hands and for how long. Complaints about the lack of toilet paper in stores sound hollow when people lack water or live under the threat of not having the money necessary to buy drinking water.

Through the foundation ACTUEMOS!, we work in the community La Finca Argentina, located at the end of the Calle Montreal, in the municipality of Mejicanos. While Finca Argentina officially belongs to the municipality of Cd Delgado, the people historically have carried out community functions in Mejicanos, given that there is no street access to Cd Delgado.

In the popular imagination, the area of the Calle Montreal is known for its high level of violence – donde queman busetas, “where they burn buses” based on an incident several years ago. The area shows high presence of both gang members and police and military. The community Finca Argentina went from actually being a finca, essentially a large farm, to become a community (colonia) when the government of president Cristani issued small parcels of land to families, displaced from other places (like Soyapango and areas of the capital). The displacements were usually carried out rather violently by the military, and the first families arriving in what is now la Finca Argentina were left at the end of a dirt road with a barrel to store water, one or two panes of sheet metal and some card boards. The living conditions in the new area were hostile, to say the least, but people gained the titles to their small allotments of land. Throughout the years more and more families arrived on their own, fleeing from extreme poverty in other areas of El Salvador. These families didn’t have the resources to rent a room or a house, as they were living off of the little that could be earned through selling goods on the street. They didn’t receive any sheet metal or water barrels, but came on their own for the lack of other options. This is how the sectors of las champas, “the shacks,” started out, a slum area a few minutes outside the city center of San Salvador.

Since the start of the decade of the 2000’s, the habitants of las champas found themselves in a legal limbo. Organizing the distribution of small land lots, they arranged to build small access ways, water lines, and electricity. They also began soliciting the legalization of their lots. Still, life in the area continues being precarious, lacking most basic services. Water comes every two weeks -in the best of cases- and usually at night. The lack of indoor plumbing condemns people to wake up at night, in hopes of filling their water barrels with hoses. The barrels are usually old and rusty metal barrels, laced with big garbage bags to prevent leaking. Plastic barrels are too expensive. Everyone hast to store water for at least two weeks. If at some point, the water actually was potable, within a few days it won’t be anymore. Scarcity reigns. I vividly remember when early on in my research Don R. told me that people here usually don’t wear jeans -because they soak (waste) too much water when washing them!

Other services are missing too. The access “road” doesn’t allow through traffic in times of drought, much less during the rainy season and no garbage truck enters the sector.

Between the lack of water and the trash, it’s not surprising that every year the zone falls victim to several fires endangering the lives, health and belongings of the inhabitants. Of course, the heat, the dust, or the rain all effect the health of children and adults living in sheet metal shacks. People often have to turn their mattresses over during the rainy season as they get wet.

If this wasn’t enough the area is known for being under the control of the gang, adding even more to the discrimination towards the population. However, for people living in the area it’s the large presence of police and military that represents a threat.

In other words, the people living in the sectors las champas of the Finca Argentina suffer extreme poverty and an almost complete abandonment by the state and society. This abandonment is “justified” by the presence of the gang and the reputation of the area as being violent. Of course, among other things, this discourse omits the recognition of the amount of structural violence mentioned (lack of water, etc.), or violence exercised by the police and military.

As ACTUEMOS! We have constructed a building that ensures dignified working conditions for children, adolescence and the community in general. The space was named Centro Cultural Juvenil la Finca Argentina, “Cultural Youth Center, Finca Argentina.” Located in the middle of the shacks, we seek to aid the community in attending their daily needs but also in making structural changes. For this, we found ourselves developing after school support programs, provide psycho-social workshops, and simply create a safe space to organize (children, adolescents, and adults). We collaborate with the school, to which we donated bathrooms sets, again filling the gaps left by an absent government.

The people live off the little they can earn in the informal sector, for example, as ambulant vendors. One young man in the community usually sells shoes in the center of El Salvador, earning $1 dollar per pair he sells. With the income he has to cover transportation (around $1 per day round trip) to pick up the shoes and sell them on the streets, as well as whatever food or drink he might consume during the day. Hence, he spends a minimum of $1 to $1.50 per day, meaning that only to cover the minimum expenses, he has to sell one to two pairs of shoes!

Others work as domestic helpers, in construction, or preparing and selling street food or other services close to major population centers such as office buildings, universities etc. Of course, the majority of these people don’t have work contracts or labor rights. Sometimes their work extends only for a day, a short season, or simply for a specific project. This is the informal sector of the country, consisting of vulnerable people, without rights, and hence easily disposable. Leaving la Finca Argentina to work is neither cheap nor easy. It involves the danger of crossing gang territory, police stations, and confronting the discrimination of being from la Montreal. Still, in the sector las champas the few people that find this kind of employment are regarded as the fortunate ones and a large part of the local economy depends on them.

Closer at home women prepare and sell sweet bread or tortillas, pupusas, a kind of tortilla stuffed with beans, meat etc. Others might help in the sale or attend small stores out of their shacks (selling mostly sodas and chunk food as well as some dry food). Taking care of the children for working mothers provides another source of income. Yet, none of these are full time employments and most people have to combine multiple sources of income to pay for their expenses such as food, water, gas, clothing or school supplies.

All of this would be sufficiently complicated for a household headed by two adults. However, a majority of the households are led by single mothers, who are simultaneously in charge of the economic as well as the emotional and educational well-being of their children. Few households are run by single fathers, and few are the men who step up to their financial and social / emotional responsibilities as fathers after separation. Needless to say, the state neither holds them responsible nor does it otherwise protect the rights of women and children abandoned by their husbands and fathers.

The stress posed by extreme poverty is trying on the health of the people, as we have verified through medical consultations. However, the situation has worsened even more over the last few months in la Finca Argentina. In all of 2020, water has reached the community only once. There have been various fires threatening lives, health, and homes. Not only did the military and police presence increase, but on various occasions they trespassed homes and even our Cultural Center (with children present during the after-school program!) without permission. With these intimidation efforts came technicians measuring and exploring the land, supposedly for the construction of a residential neighborhood.

That is to say, that from one minute to the next, the people of La Finca Argentina were converted from aspiring owners of their lots to illegal squatters. At the Centro Cultural we have seen the desperation of mothers crying during meetings and children who lost their interest to do anything. “Why should I study if they’re going to kick us out of here?” they asked. How can we respond? How do you explain when children as “why us?” Insomnia, irritability, loss of interest, a generic sadness and feeling of hopelessness are of course all signs of a spreading depression. And who could be surprised?

It is in this situation of extreme insecurity and poverty that COVID-19 arrived, and whoever thought that things couldn’t get worse were mistaken.

With the state of emergency declared in El Salvador, ambulant sales have fallen so low that it no longer makes sense to make the trek to the center in order to sell. With schools closed, mothers and even more so single mothers either have to pay someone to watch their children or take them to work, that is, if they still have a job. Worse yet, the closing of universities and large business centers has closed down large parts of the informal food and service sector. The lack of income, in turn, prohibits people to pay for childcare or to buy bread and tortillas beyond the bare minimum. That is to say, the already precarious economy of La Finca Argentina runs now in a total emergency mode.

These are real lives. For example, a few months ago a friend of ours, who attends the center regularly with her two children, was left by her husband. He does not provide any financial or other support and does not visit his daughters. Initially, our friend arranged making a living by working on weekends preparing tortillas in the center of El Salvador. Twice a week she took care of two children for a friend, and in addition she helped a neighbor sell bread in the walkways between the shacks. Needless to say, her children grew increasingly irritable and tense during this time. The absence of their dad – and now her absence took their tolls. In addition, the children often had to join their mother when making tortilla or selling bread. Still, at least economically they survived.

With the arrival of the virus – or rather the arrival of the threat of the virus – the demand of tortillas in the center of el Salvador went down, so much so that our friend lost her job making tortillas on the weekend. She also lost her work as a baby sitter, as the mother of the children she watched, also lost her job. Of course, these two cases are not special and with many similar cases the local sale of bread fell to the point that our friend also was no longer asked to help selling bread. Within a few days she lost all her income!

And there are many women like her. With the closing of offices, companies, schools, and universities there is a service sector that is left without jobs. From the sales of food, sodas, newspapers, to shoe cleaners. Small expenses for some, lost wages for others, wages that are essential for survival in communities like the Finca Argentina.

For now, the schools continue handing out free lunch to the children – yet classes are cancelled. But no one knows whether and for how long this assistance will last. And that is only regarding food. Nobody knows if there will be water. If it doesn’t arrive, people will have to buy not only potable water (in bags) but also the water in their barrels. No one knows at this moment for how much longer there will be water in the stores or for how much longer the stores will be open.

And these are only the material aspects. Other aspects relate to the insecurity of not knowing what will happen next, what will happen with the water, the food, and even more so what will happen if one gets sick. What does it mean to hear about a virus knowing that even in good times the access to doctors and medicine is limited? What to think when one sees empty streets or people hiding behind masks, when finding a soap let alone having the money to buy one is nearly impossible?

How do you socially isolate yourself in this situation? What to do with children stuck all day inside with the sun burning the metal roofs and walls? How to exert social isolation with a family of 8 (or more) in a hot 4×10 meter room, with a dirt floor, filled with outside dust? How to protect, in these conditions, one’s respiratory ways with a virus that attacks the pulmonary system?

This short overview should make several things clear. While everybody can contract COVID-19, the effects of the virus do indeed discriminate. As of yet, El Salvador claims to to have only one patient with the virus. However, the virus has claimed already thousands of victims across the country. They might not carry the virus, but are nevertheless suffering from the policies enacted by the government to prevent the spread of it. They lack importance to the state and society, they are the people del cerro, “from the hills, gang territory, “where they burn busetas.”

For some time now, their rights have been violated on a daily basis, lacking water, road access, trash removal, etc. etc. However, this has become the “normal state of being,” and the message couldn’t be clearer: Whoever lives in area like this doesn’t have rights and remains precariously unprotected. Even more so in a state of emergency and red alert.

As ACTUEMOS! We denounce the constant violation of the rights of the inhabitants of the Finca Argentina. We denounce the mistreatment of children and adults that are living under a ruling of a plan territorial, a policy designed to provide security in El Salvador. As other institutions of civil society our work is to fill the gaping voids left by the government in areas like the Finca Argentina. However, these shortcomings don’t exist by accident. Rather they form part of a broader policy that is accompanied and caused by social discrimination, the criminalization of poverty and its maintenance in a constant state of vulnerability; making entire sectors of the population available or disposable as needed.

We demand that the government attend to the immediate basic needs in areas such as la Finca Argentina. The insecurity lived within this sector of our society not only puts in danger the health of the people, but also adds to their general vulnerability. In the informal sector there are no guarantees for employment or salary. Hence, the corresponding emergency measures taken by the government do not reach the people who need it most. We ask for the immediate help so that all people can reach a dignified life, COVID-19 or not. That way we might avoid the making of more victims of a virus that has not even arrived yet.

Norbert Ross is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Culture and Cognition, Implications for Theory and Method (2004) and Culture and Resource Conflict, (with Doug Medin and Doug Cox, 2006).