Community spread of coronavirus in El Salvador

Easter Sunday in El Salvador concluded a Holy Week which normally would have seen beaches and tourist centers, bars and restaurants, overflowing with people on vacations. Instead, bars and restaurants were shuttered, no salt carpets covered streets for Semana Santa processions, and beaches were deserted except for a few soldiers or police patrolling with automatic weapons and face masks.   #SurfCity was #SurfCityAbandoned last week.

The number of COVID-19 deaths through Sunday, April 12 in the country stood at six, with 137 confirmed cases and another 42 suspected cases.   Perhaps the most important statistic is the 22 cases which the government labels as "local," meaning persons who developed symptoms but had not traveled outside of the country in the recent past.  This could mean that there is now "community transmission" of the disease, and the virus is circulating in the population outside of the quarantine centers.   The test of Nayib Bukele's very strict shutdown of the country will be the growth curve of locally acquired infections.

For the first time yesterday, the government announced the number of coronavirus tests it has administered: 6,729 tests.  The Ministry of Health shared no other details such as when the tests were administered and what groups of persons were tested.

Starting today, wearing a facemask in public is mandatory, and the police are now authorized by Bukele to impound the cars of persons who are on the streets without justification.

The government continues to proceed under the assumption that a large outbreak of COVID-19 is coming towards the country.  The Ministry of Public Works announced that it had built two new hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients, each with 250 beds.   In addition, the ministry tweeted out photos of more quarantine centers being furnished.  Work continues at the CIFCO convention center on another COVID-19 hospital.

For travelers who returned home to El Salvador in the past month, there was some good news.  1663 Salvadorans have now been released from some of the quarantine centers after spending up to 30 days following their entry to the country from abroad after March 11.

The Legislative Assembly voted Sunday night only to extend the state of emergency until Thursday while the Assembly works on a new version of the emergency decree. Bukele wanted a 30 day extension.  Bukele tweeted afterwards that  "The quarantine remains intact as well as the consequences for its violators."

In enforcing that quarantine, Bukele continues to direct the police and armed forces to flout a decision of the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court.  Despite the Chamber's ruling that the police and army must not carry people off to quarantine centers solely for being in the street in violation of the stay-at-home order, 1844 persons are in those centers for just that reason. 

El Salvador's human rights advocate("PDDH"), Apolonio Tobar, has been a leading voice criticizing the government for the human rights abuses in its response.  The PDDH has denounced those unilateral decrees of the president which have not complied with the ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Perhaps not wanting criticism to show up in his Twitter feed, Nayib Bukele blocked the Twitter account of Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch: 

Another show of the tolerance of criticism
of the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele
Vivanco, however, has not stopped his criticism:

These announcements from the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, plainly violate the sentence of the Supreme Court on the subject.   Bukele doe not appear to understand that the fight against the coronavirus ought to be within -- not outside of -- the rule of law.

In similar response to criticism, the president's secretary of communications attacked the association of community radio stations, ARPAS, claiming its reporting made it a part of the left wing opposition.

The government has also shut off responses to public information requests.  It is now refusing to answer public information requests so it can control the information flow.   The denial of request for information and data makes it difficult to report on the ongoing challenges the government has delivering the $300 subsidy to jobless households, as public employees and people living outside of the country reported getting the payment, while other desperately needy persons have not managed to receive the aid.

As Bukele's approach to the crisis shows more and more authoritarian tendencies, with the country feeling more like it is under martial law with armed troops patrolling and roadblocks set up to question everyone outside, the early unquestioning support of Bukele in the Legislative Assembly is starting to vanish.   It appears there are no longer the votes for more extensions of the "state of exception" which suspended certain constitutional rights.   Bukele's emergency powers may be extended on Thursday, but the Assembly may now impose some limits on those powers and insist on additional measures such as helping Salvadorans stranded overseas return home and a plan to reopen the economy.