SAN SALVADOR — In the hours before President Nayib Bukele announced a nationwide 30-day home quarantine on the Saturday evening of March 21, police had already started rounding up informal vendors in the city center and closing their stalls. Schools, public parks, bars and other gathering places were ordered to close earlier in the month but those selling “essential products” had been allowed to continue operating and when I drove through town that afternoon, nearly every stall had toilet paper and hand sanitizer prominently displayed as if to justify their presence.
By Sunday morning, the National Civil Police (PNC) Twitter account was announcing the arrests of those who had violated the quarantine’s terms. For the next month, everyone is required to stay home, with strict requirements about who can leave their houses and for what purposes.
For those not working in “essential jobs,” one person per family is permitted to leave home twice a week to shop for food or visit the pharmacy or bank. My housemate and I have debated whether or not we count as one family or two, but so far neither of us have been questioned.
Where I live in San Salvador, supermarkets are easily accessible and we can also order home delivery. (The house where I initially lived upon arrival in San Salvador was in a neighborhood where delivery services were not possible due to the area’s reputation.) I can walk to the local tienda, a small store with a security grate through which I can order snacks, soda and occasionally eggs or produce depending on their supply. The selection is limited, but it feels thrilling just to get out of the house and move beyond our small backyard and the confines of my yoga mat.
Although I am unable to move freely, technology has enabled me to follow the impact of the quarantine. Bukele is constantly active on Twitter and has set up a government website to share information about official statistics. The first case was confirmed by the president on March 18, just a few days before the lockdown began. Bukele had ordered the borders closed on March 12, after which no foreigners were allowed to enter and Salvadoran citizens were immediately placed in quarantine upon arrival. He emphasized the likelihood that the first patient had crossed the border illegally. As of April 7, there were 78 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four reported deaths, almost all of them from quarantine centers and “imported” from other countries.
I have been hearing from friends all over the country via WhatsApp and Facebook. Those who work in human rights are mostly able to continue their work remotely and are monitoring the humanitarian impact of Bukele’s order while also helping family members in need. My friend Alicia wrote me that she had been unable to travel from her home in San José Las Flores to the nearest supermarket, an hour’s bus ride away in Chalatenango, because the buses have not been running regularly. She and her children have been eating simple meals and neighbors have shared fruit from their gardens. “Alexander” has been identifying who in his community needs food most.
Many Salvadorans have been unable to simply feed themselves and their families during the quarantine.
A few days after the home quarantine was announced, I armed myself with a shopping list I could provide if questioned and drove to the upscale Santa Elena neighborhood, near the US Embassy. My destination was PriceSmart, a membership warehouse club run by the founder of The Price Club, where it’s possible to buy staples and snacks in bulk. On my way out of my neighborhood, I passed a group of soldiers at the entrance of the neighboring colonia, a more densely populated area. In Santa Elena, I drove by a police checkpoint and saw a contingent of PNC officers in the PriceSmart parking lot.
Only 50 shoppers were allowed into the store at a time, so the rest of us lined up outside the door. Many wore masks, but none seemed to be standing more than a few feet away from one another. I tried to stand about six feet from the person in front of me, feeling awkward for standing so far away and not wearing a mask myself. At the entrance, a woman in scrubs took each person’s temperature. I wondered what would happen if I had a fever: would I be turned over to the police standing nearby and sent to quarantine?
The woman told me my temperature in Celsius and I stood there for a moment, trying to mentally calculate whether or not 37 was in the normal range. She laughed and told me as long as I was under 38, I was good, and ushered me through a disinfectant station with hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes to wipe down my shopping cart.
But millions of Salvadorans can’t afford to shop at PriceSmart; indeed, many have been unable to simply feed themselves and their families during the quarantine. When Bukele announced the quarantine, giving little warning everyone would have to stop working, he recognized it would cause great hardship to the many Salvadorans in the informal economy. He promised a payment of $300 (approximately the monthly minimum wage) to approximately 1.5 million people who are thought to qualify, over 20 percent of the population.
But more than a week later, few had been able to get any payments, and on Monday, March 30, thousands showed up at government offices around the country to request theirs. News outlets printed images of people crowded closely together in defiance of the prohibition on large gatherings and reported that police broke up at least one of the crowds with pepper spray.
While the promised subsidy seems well-meaning, its implementation has not been effective. If the aid does not reach them soon, the majority of Salvadorans will be forced to risk arrest by leaving their homes to feed their families.
Bukele has been praised for his early and decisive action, but the consequences for El Salvador’s poor have already been devastating. On April 6, 2020, the lockdown was extended for an additional 15 days, but it is unclear what will happen when it ends. There does not appear to be widespread testing, so it is difficult to know how many people have been infected with the virus and whether the lockdown measures were implemented in time to halt its spread. In the meantime, lines at PriceSmart continue to stretch around the block while others go hungry.