BY KATHLEEN SMITH
Even as COVID-19 struck, the very popular new El Salvadorian president, Nayib Bukele, was taking a hardline approach to dealing with a raging gang violence problem, and it seemed to be working. In 2018, the intentional homicide rate was the worst in the world at 52 per 100,000 people.1 By the end of 2020, that number had reduced to 20 according to government figures.2 Debates unfurled about the various factors, causes, and contributors to this success. But the President seems unequivocal about the lesson he took from that experience and has applied it to the new crisis of the day: managing a global pandemic.
If COVID-19 threatened health systems around the world, El Salvador’s health system was especially at risk. Since the country has around a total of 100 ICU beds throughout the country, the pandemic placed El Salvador in a very vulnerable position.3 Mindful of this, the government adopted measures to implement restrictions before any cases were identified in El Salvador by canceling sporting events, suspending classes, and banning gatherings of more than 20 people. The government also banned travel from several countries in the following days. Then, after the identification of a single positive case in El Salvador, much stricter measures were put in place.
On March 21, 2020, Bukele announced a mandatory 30-day nationwide lockdown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Under these conditions, only one person per family was allowed out at a time to purchase medicine or food. Exceptions were allowed for essential workers such as doctors, journalists, public officials, and energy workers. Those who were found to have violated the lockdown were placed in containment centers. These stringent measures received support from all levels of government as well as the PAHO/WHO country office.
Although the lockdown was intended to last for 30 days, ultimately the measures remained in place for almost three months. Less than a month after the lockdown was introduced, 4,236 El Salvadorians were reported to be held in 87 centers. The Ombudsperson’s Office in El Salvador has reported that these containment centers lack appropriate access for food, water, and medical treatment. In addition, those with underlying health conditions and older people are not separated from other detainees, putting them at substantial risk. In response to the lockdown and containment measures, the Supreme Court released rulings that cited human rights violations occurring during the government’s quarantine enforcement, which President Bukele ignored. Instead, the president encouraged the military and police to be even “tougher” with those who violated quarantine rules. Between March 21 and April 11, 2020, the Ombudsperson’s Office recorded 343 complaints, including 102 regarding excessive use of force or arbitrary detention.4
Access to information regarding the pandemic itself was severely restricted. In March 2020, public information requests, including those for quarantine conditions and individual COVID-19 test results, were suspended. Despite El Salvador’s Supreme Court order that the government give its citizens their test results so they can receive any necessary treatment, President Bukele refused.5 This created significant confusion as doctors would not provide information regarding test results and the number of days a person will be held in quarantine facilities.
While taking a hardline approach to deter those who would violate the restrictions, the government also spent lavishly on social protection for those whose livelihoods were threatened, providing US$300 to 60% of households, especially those who relied on the informal sector for employment; handed out 2.7 million “food baskets” to households that were lower income; and froze payments for basic utilities, personal loans, and mortgages for three months.
Through this combination of early action, crackdown, and social support, El Salvador resulted in one of the lowest death rates in Central America at 32.9 deaths per 100,000 as of May 4, 2021 exceeded only by Nicaragua which reported 2.83.6
El Salvador has achieved important successes in dealing with crises over the last two years, but if the lesson taken is that hardline, anti-democratic action is the way to deal with an emergency, whether that emergency be a crime wave or a pandemic, the effects could be long lasting. Decreased government transparency and delegitimization of the Salvadoran Supreme Court and the judicial system, steamrolling of the legislature, excessive force, and arbitrary detentions, are a dangerous precedent for governance after this particular emergency is behind us.
3. Maxmen, Amy (2020, April 9). “How poorer countries are scrambling to prevent a coronavirus disaster”. Nature. 580: 173-174. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00983-9
4. Human Rights Watch (2020, April 15). “El Salvador: Police Abuses in Covid-19 Response”. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/15/el-salvador-police-abuses-covid-19-response
5. Human Rights Watch (2020, June 9). “El Salvador: Broad Powers Limit Accountability”. Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/09/el-salvador-broad-powers-limit-accountability
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