El Salvador under quarantine

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in El Salvador has continued to grow.   As of the time of this post, the total is 46.  There have also now been two deaths from the virus.  Real time updates on confirmed cases and deaths are available here.  Part of the tragedy of this pandemic is that family members and other mourners are prohibited from attending the burial of those who perish from the disease.

The primary response of the Salvadoran government to the pandemic continues to be a nationwide home quarantine to avoid transmission of the virus and to give the government time to build up its capacity to respond to a the approaching health system crisis.  Of course the quarantine requires a means to support the millions of poor Salvadorans in the informal economy, who don't eat if they can't work.  The government's plan is a subsidy payment of $300 per household, while at the same time suspending their obligations to pay utilities, mortgages, loans and taxes.  The $300 would allow a family to purchase food to get through the period of the stay at home order.

President Bukele announced his subsidy plan to the nation in a broadcast address.   Then he told it again in an online interview with rapper Reciente.   But the roll-out of subsidy payments has been plagued with problems.  First, the computer servers immediately crashed as millions of Salvadorans tried to log on at the same time to find out if and when they would receive the $300.  Although Bukele said his government was depositing funds, no one could access the information to make a withdrawal.

People living day-to-day, depending on the few dollars they might earn each day selling cell phone chargers or trash bags on street corners, or washing windshields, or doing day labor, had been without an income for days, and they were hungry.   Bukele's plan depended on people having internet access through a cell phone, but large numbers of the poor don't have a phone or no longer had a spare dollar for "saldo" -- minutes on their phone.

So Monday morning, the people did what the president had stated they could do.   If they could not find their $300 claim information online, they should go to the government offices of the National Center for Attention and Administration of Subsidy (CENADE).  Thousands gathered in large groups outside of CENADE offices in various cities.   All social-distancing and quarantine disappeared in those spaces.  When the offices never opened, or closed after only an hour, protests broke out and images of poor, hungry people proclaiming their desperation filled social media.

"We are hungry, since 3 in the morning we have been here without eating. Why have people who have money gone out? Where I rent, the landlord with money gets to go out, and but what about us? We are nothing," says this woman. outside CENADE San Salvador

Inequality kills.   Images taken early this morning outside CENADE where hundreds of Salvadorans seek information about the $300 subsidy for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minister of Defense asks for calm from people who were present at the office of CENADE in Santa Tecla.

In the afternoon, Bukele posted to Facebook that his government had made mistakes, but also deflected the blame by speaking of the number of people without bank accounts, the number of people who had not understood the instructions, the number of people who thought they could get more by being first in line.

Rather than accepting any blame for poor planning, the Minister of Labor blamed the protests on agitation by political opponents.

At this point  the process appears somewhat more orderly.  People are no longer being told to go to the CENADE offices.   Banks and money transfer offices where people can withdraw the subsidy dollars are enforcing queues where people must stand six feet apart.  The government said on Thursday that it had delivered the $300 subsidy to some 479,000 households for a total of almost $144 million. 

The government also began to distribute basic food packages in certain areas.   The packages were all branded with the name of El Salvador's First Lady Gabriela de Bukele.

Thanks for the work of the First Lady and the Armed Forces we are delivering food packets to families of fishermen who have been affected by the pandemic of COVID-19 in the municipality of San Francisco Menéndez.

The home quarantine decree has been facilitated by a law which suspends various constitutional rights related to freedom of movement and living in your own home.   That law was initially approved on March 14 for 15 days.   Human rights groups and constitutional law scholars warned about the dangerous precedent of limiting constitutional rights, something which had not been done in El Salvador since the November 1989  final offensive during the civil war.   They argued that the separate emergency decree law gave the president all the power he needed without needing to resort to suspending parts of the constitution.   

The Legislative Assembly kept in line with Bukele, however, and approved an extension of the decree suspending constitutional rights for an additional period of 15 days with some additional language designed to protect against abuses by the police or armed forces.

Human rights groups raised concerns about violations of individual rights as the government began to enforce the home quarantine order.   Persons found out on the street and deemed not to be employed by an essential business or the designated grocery shopper for a household were arrested and often initially placed in holding cells at police stations for a day or more, sometimes without food.   These persons did not have any symptoms of COVID-19 and had not been found to be contagious.   

In response to various habeas corpus petitions, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that persons found violating the stay-at-home rules should not be carried off to thirty days confinement in a quarantine containment center unless they are actually exhibiting signs of the illness, instead, they should be escorted back to their homes.  President Bukele has shown been dismissive of the court's rulings, asserting that they were forcing the police to become Uber drivers giving people a ride home.

Bukele also revealed his disdain for human rights concerns in a tweet attacking human rights organizations who questioned whether an extension of the state of exception was necessary and who were advocating for persons detained in the containment centers without showing signs of illness.

At times it seems that there are some organizations of "human rights" that only work in order that more humans die. When it was crime, I thought it was something ideological, but also now they are on the side of the virus.
In other COVID-19 developments in the Central American country:

El Faro reported that the country's gangs had decided to enforce the stay-at-home order in the territories that they controlled with beatings or worse for anyone who dared to venture out.

The health minister was fired and the vice-minister of operations of the Ministry of Health, Francisco Alabí, took her place.

The government continues to work feverishly on a 2000 bed temporary hospital in the CIFCO convention center which Bukele says will be the largest hospital dedicated strictly to COVID-19 in Central America.

Even if Bukele's containment approach works as he hopes, the country still faces a massive economic hit from the virus.   Remittances from abroad are forecast to drop dramatically as members of the diaspora lose jobs and income in the world economic downturn.