The Luxury to Fear COVID-19

Photograph Source: David Stanley – CC BY 2.0

El Salvador is showing very different faces. While some people herald its young president for his forceful actions as the savior of the country and even an example for Latin America, others denounce him for his disregard for Salvadorian law, the blatant violations of human rights committed under his regime, and his seeming aspirations as a populist, authoritarian leader. Rather than thinking of this as “the truth lies somewhere in between,” it is important to explore how the government has reacted to the COVID-19 crisis, and how these actions have affected the sectors of the society that are usually ignored – the rural and urban poor.

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. As I have described elsewhere (Ross 2020), the area is known for its high level of violence and shows high presence of both, gang members as well as police and military. The community started when – toward the end of the war – the government issued small parcels of land to families, forcefully displaced from other areas. Throughout the years, more and more families arrived on their own, fleeing from extreme poverty, lacking the resources to pay any rent or purchase any land. These families didn’t receive any support nor did they gain titles to the land plots, where they carved out their new homes. This is how the sectors of las champas, “the shacks,” started out, an urban slum area just outside the city center of San Salvador.

In La Finca, the pandemic hit people barely surviving during the “good times” (Ross 2020). So far no one in the community of approx. 700 people has been either been diagnosed with the virus, or tested. Still, everyone is suffering from the policies that came in the wake of the pandemic – the virus is creating victims without infecting people (Ross 2020).

Rather than getting better, the situation has worsened over the last several weeks; people that have previously been kept invisible, are dispensable in times of crises and might even present a danger. While their poverty remains largely invisible, the area is hyper-visible in terms of the violence attributed to it. The people of La Finca are not known for being poor, but for being violent; donde queman busetas, where they burn buses, as I explained elsewhere (Ross 2020). In times of crises, the language of violence is easily activated to discard of this sector of the society, leaving their needs unattended. The same people that usually provide cheap labor and services (as part of the informal sector), can now easily be discarded as disposable, because they are dangerous. Their work force is not needed, yet they are potentially infectious and compete for already scarce resources. Within such a regime the first order for these areas is control not support.

Said differently, the pandemic makes predating structural differences much more visible, both in terms of who is protected and who is affected by government policies.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the government of El Salvador has taken an extremely proactive stance. With the emergence of the first individual who tested positive in Costa Rica on April 6th, the Salvadorian government declared a yellow alert (Delcid, Merlin, March 7th, 2020). When 5 days later the WHO officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic, the Salvadorian government suspended all schools (public and private), prohibited gatherings of large groups, and closed the country for all foreigners (ABC7News, March 11, 2020). Two days later (on March 14) a red alert was issued for the entire country, followed by the official declarations of both a State of Emergency (for an initial duration of 30 days) and a State of Exception (for an initial duration of 15 days). The former enabled specific policies, such as the prohibition of large gatherings of people, the closing of bars, as well as tighter controls of occupational health norms, while the latter specifically allowed for the temporary suspension of the freedom of transit, freedom of assembly, as well as the freedom to choose one’s own residency (EFE, San Salvador15 mar 2020). Not surprisingly, the logistics of the quarantine centers was put in the hands of the military (La Voz de America, 14 March 2020), one of the few institutions that hasn’t suffered spending cuts or experienced any other major changes in the postwar rebuilding of the country (Ross & Ross Sanchez, 2017).

To be clear, all this happened even before a single case of COVID-19 was detected in El Salvador, which didn’t happen until March 18th.

Three days after the detection of the first official case, the government declared a 30-day quarantine (national post march 21st), to be controlled by police and military checkpoints. The quarantine, as well as the declaration of the states of emergency and exception have been extended several times by now. People are now ordered to stay in their homes, with only one person per family being allowed to circulate twice per week to make purchases and satisfy the basic needs of the family. Aside from these trips, only essential workers (with the respective papers) are allowed to transit, and all stores are closed unless they provide important services, such as banks, pharmacies, supermarkets, take out restaurants, delivery services etc. (France24.com).

Several times now the president threatened with harsher measures and admonished police and military to enforce the rules ever more strictly, including the detention of individuals, who violate the quarantine. Entire communities have been locked down. Detained individuals are usually taken into confinement centers for a forced quarantine of at least 30 days. Due to the lack of oversight, lack of testing kits, or simply the lack of care, however, people are frequently held for much longer.

It is important to note, that within the state of emergency and exception, the legal system is somewhat reversed. When stopped at police or military checkpoints, individuals have the burden of proof that they are essential workers or the designated person conducting essential business for the family. If they fail to convince the respective officers, they run the risk of being detained into one of the confinement centers without legal recourse. In some instances, vehicles and property have been confiscated, and individuals have even been shot at and wounded.

Of course, in general such a system is not only open to all kinds of arbitrary decisions and mistakes, but conducive to the abuse of power (the two not being independent of one another). As such, it is a system that controls through fear, insecurity, and uncertainty. As mentioned elsewhere (Ross 2020), even before the crisis, individuals from la Finca Argentina had little recourse when confronted by law enforcement agencies – they have even less now. In fact, lawyers and family are often not allowed to see detained people (even when detained in the local police station) – with the dangers of the virus given as the only explanation.

In other words, within the current political climate (including the fear among the citizens), the president wields almost uncontrolled power. And all this happens, despite the fact that the legislative assembly and the supreme court have declared several of the above described measures as illegal (e.g. the detentions of individuals into forced quarantine, or the confiscation of property, and vehicles) (El Salvador.com). Yet, without any repercussions, the president publicly defies the respective rulings declaring, in a truly populist fashion, that “I would not abide by a resolution ordering me to kill Salvadorans, I also cannot abide by a resolution that orders me to let them die” (Rentira, 2020).

Following the orders tweeted (!) by the president, police and military act as police, prosecutors, judges, and executioners all at once – and immediately. Of course, it doesn’t help that the new security and public health laws are hard to understand for either citizens or law enforcement agents. Hence, arriving at a checkpoint, one’s fortune depends entirely on the officials’ willingness to understand one’s case, which in turn is largely dependent on where the checkpoint is and who is traveling. The geographical distribution of “willingness to understand” is also reflected in the kinds of checkpoints and the frequency with which one finds checkpoints in different parts of the city / country. While certain areas of the country such as Mejicanos or the historical center of San Salvador look like actual war zones, other areas, such as upscale Escalón, see a rather limited military / police presence.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, police and military detained approx. 2500 people; these are the official numbers. Real numbers are likely much higher. But even this official number is over 10 times higher than the number of officially reported COVID-19 cases! If the USA would follow a similar policy it would have detained and placed by now over 8,000,000 individuals into forced quarantine! Clearly, civil rights violations in EL Salvador are rampant even considering the ongoing state of exception and state of emergency regimes. These violations, too, are not randomly distributed but follow a pattern of class segregation, expressed, in El Salvador, in the idiom of “violence.”

The danger of using the pandemic for social control has not gone unnoticed, and the described militarization of the crisis has led the three major gangs in El Salvador to officially support and enforce the quarantine measure, threatening physical violence to anyone violating the quarantine (Martínez, C.; Martínez, O. & Lemus, E.; 31 de Marzo de 2020). At first sight, this alliance with presidential policies might surprise. After all, he started his government with yet another anti-gang campaign. However, on close inspection, these measures constitute a well calculated move by the ranflas, the national gang leaderships. Enforcing the quarantine, preemptively takes away justifications for higher police/military presence in their territories, while also safeguarding their own health. After all, who would attend gang members providing ventilators etc. at a hospital?

Some people have exposed the authoritarian policies of the current president (Martinez, 20 April 2020.), while others have denounced how the system of forced detention is not only unconstitutional, but also puts people unnecessarily at risk of infection, being forced to cohabit with others – often not yet tested. Even within the European Union El Salvador has been denounced for using the pandemic as an excuse for social control (Diario El Mundo, April 22; 2020). All these issues are important to keep in mind, just as it is important to relate these events to the historical memory in El Salvador; for many Salvadorians, the kinds of presidential powers, the lack of checks and balances, as well as the role that law enforcement plays in El Salvador today, is reminiscent of the times before and during the war.

This then is the wider context of El Salvador. As mentioned, some areas, such as parts of Mejicanos and the historical center of El Salvador have been completely cordoned off by law enforcement. No one is allowed in or out, unless they can convince the authorities of their need to travel. To access the central market located in the historic center of San Salvador, one needs to pass both a security and health cordon, running the risk to end up being detained, if the officers in charge doubt one’s credibility. This, in turn, has huge consequences. As mentioned elsewhere, large parts of the informal sector have already ceased to exist, leaving most of the urban poor without any income (Ross 2020). The more recent and stricter measures have created even more hardships.

People from la Finca usually travel to the central market of Mejicanos or even San Salvador to purchase goods. Here they find not only a wider selection of products, but more importantly cheaper products or the same products for a better price. These travels are no longer possible! Furthermore, due to the higher risks and costs of transportation, market vendors adjust their prices almost on a weekly basis. For example, 50 kg of beans increased by over 5 dollars in the matter of one week, quite a price hike for people, who often make less than $ 5 in a day’s work! (Ross 2020). Of course, price increases at the central market of San Salvador do not simply get passed on to local shoppers, but receive an even higher mark-up due to the additional risk and costs of transportation. The same bag of 10 potatoes, that hung dangling off a vegetable truck by mid-March, now holds only 4 or 5 potatoes, yet it still costs the same $1. Furthermore, most local stores and markets are closed anyway, and hence people have to purchase their goods at the more expensive supermarket chains, including now paying $ 1 for the travels.

Any trips, to purchase food or other goods are severely limited and outright dangerous. While at the onset of the crises people could still find the occasional day’s work, nowadays this no longer the case. Searching for employment to purchase food, puts people at a high risk of being detained (for at least 30 days). In addition, many of the families, who attend our Centro Cultural la Finca Argentina, are single mother households. As people have to travel alone for shopping, these mothers cannot take their kids along, yet what would happen if one of them would be detained for 30 days? Again, one can see how such a situation can easily translate into abuse.

For several weeks now the families of La Finca have not been able to leave their homes. Of course, for them staying home means no income, no employers to pay a salary, and of course no savings. So far, the government has not devised a functioning support system, allowing these families to obey the law without running the risk of starvation. To say the least, people are desperate! As I am writing this, I am constantly talking to friends on the phone. One of them, a single mother of two girls, abandoned some months ago by the father of her children (see Ross 2020), essentially lives of the beans and rice we were able to get to the community some weeks ago. With the schools closed, her daughters do not have access to the free lunch anymore, and her food supply is about to run out. And, of course, children need other supplies too. She told me crying that she will have to go out searching for work next week, washing cloth or making tortilla. But then again, everyone in the area is in the same situation. Or as another friend told me on the phone, si uno va a vender, quien le va a comprar aqui, “if someone sells stuff, who is going to buy here?” While finding employment in the area is impossible, traveling further away automatically exposes her to the danger of detention.

At the end of march the government rolled out a one-time $ 300 subsidy for 1.5 million families (Pastran 2020). Lacking an effective census, the government used gas subsidies as the baseline to select beneficiaries. Initially, people were asked by the president to log into a website or visit the respective offices. Of course, many families do not have internet access and anyway, within minutes of the announcement, the web site was down due to high traffic. As a result, people visited the corresponding offices (as asked to by the president!), waiting for hours in lines, just to be dispersed by police with teargas – for causing a health danger by illegally gathering!

Not surprising, in la Finca, only few families received the subsidy. Being illegal squatter and lacking visibility, only few have the gas subsidy and even those did not all receive the subsidy. By now the program seems to have run out of funding (despite the fact that not everyone who was assigned a subsidy actually received it), and people have little hope that other announced programs will make it to their homes. The municipalities, too, seem not to have any plans to support the people in need. Security remains the highest priority, and these days security is all about preventing COVID, followed by controlling the gangs. Hence, food security is low on the list.

So far, the only support in La Finca has come from ACTUEMOS!, yet our work, too, is impacted by the new policies. It is already hard to gather funding to provide essential food for people starving. The hyper visibility of COVID-19 puts other issues on the back burner, it normalizes non-COVID related suffering. As if dying of starvation was any less painful!

While attracting donations is hard in these times, the restrictions on travel severely hamper our logistics. How does one explain the essential need of being in the street purchasing food for a community, when the government does not recognize such a need? Doesn’t accepting one’s claim to provide an essential service, evidentiate the government’s lack of support for its citizens? This becomes even more of a delicate balance, in that supporting people like the ones living in La Finca – an area identified with high levels of gang violence – usually carries a lot of suspicion among law enforcement – the very people in charge of verifying one’s claim. Hence, the increase of security measures and arbitrary detentions, affect the work of NGOs as well, ironically exactly at the moments when they might be needed most.

And all this is just the economic aspect of the crisis. So far, no doctor or nurse has made her way up to the community, and no one has the illusion that this will change any time soon. The last time a doctor visited La Finca, was during a medical visit we arranged at ACTUEMOS! beginning of March. Hence, no one knows if there are any infections in the area.

Similarly, with schools closed, children are left to their own devices to study and keep up with their homework and the school curriculum. While the government currently plans on installing virtual classrooms, it is doubtful that the children in la Finca will have access to the computers, let alone the internet connections necessary to participate.

Finally, we are moving into the rainy season. Being confined to hot dusty shacks is bad enough during the dry season. It is worse with the coming rain that not only enters through the ceilings or walls, but also prohibits leaving the shacks. Again, all these are “normal” conditions in la Finca, yet during the COVID pandemic, allergies and coughing, of course, become sources of major distress.

So, is anyone of La Finca Argentina infected by the virus? No one knows and we likely will never know for sure. The inhabitants are not really worried about the virus, as they suffer from more immediate threats, such as hunger. In El Salvador, being scared of COVID-19 is almost a luxury. At least COVID-19 patients are seen, registered and receive food and some basic attention. People not infected by the virus might survive or die, their suffering of everyday surviving will once more remain invisible.


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