SEATTLE, Washington — As of early May 2020, there were 889 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in El Salvador. At least 17 people have died and 293 have recovered. El Salvador and its president, Nayib Bukele, had an aggressive response to the pandemic from the start. Before the first case appeared in the country, Bukele had implemented travel restrictions and started to close parts of the public and private sectors.
In early March, the first case of Covid-19 in El Salvador was confirmed. Immediately after, the government sent a team of epidemiologists “to detect and control potential contacts.” By March 21, 2020, Bukele declared a 30-day nationwide shutdown to limit the spread of the disease. Furthermore, the government of El Salvador increased wages for healthcare workers, started the construction of a new hospital to accommodate the influx of patients and ensured that existing hospitals were properly equipped and stocked.
Taking Things Too Far
At first Bukele’s rapid response to Covid-19 was seen as an example for the Latin American region. However, the response soon went from cautious to abusive. During the national shutdown, violators were detained in “containment facilities” for 30 days. This went against the ruling of the Supreme Court that Bukele does not have this authority. Violators of the shutdown included many who were grocery shopping or who were in public without masks even though the presidential decree did not state that masks were necessary. The police even arrested some essential service workers. Some were even beaten and publicly humiliated by the nation’s security forces for not following the quarantine rules.
By April 13, 2020, police had detained 4,236 people across 87 containment centers. Human Rights Watch reported the centers as overcrowded with limited access to food, water and proper healthcare. Older people and others with compromised immune systems, who are more at risk to the effects of Covid-19, were not kept isolated. Many of those being detained were never tested for the virus or were detained before their results came back.
The executive board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved El Salvador’s request of a $389 million disbursement for the purpose of maintaining the integrity of critical sectors. The money was for increasing health spending and assisting those who are most vulnerable and providing broad temporary relief for its economy. This included providing liquidity to banks and other key financial actors. The funding comes from the IMF’s Rapid Finance Instrument. The IMF had previously set up the Rapid Finance Instrument to provide its member countries with quick and easy access to capital during extreme circumstances, such as a pandemic.
Bukele and his government also approved a $150 salary raise for all employees of public health institutions affected as well as a one-time $300 subsidy to roughly three-quarters of all households. He implemented a tax relief for the tourism, electricity and telecommunication sectors. On top of this, the government put a three-month freeze on mortgage and credit card debt and suspended utility, cable and internet bills, set to be paid back over a period of two years with no interest.
Overall, there was a mixed response to Covid-19 in El Salvador. President Bukele started off as a regional example for how to respond to the crisis. He canceled flights to and from the surrounding region of Wuhan, China where the pandemic originated and calling for the closing of nonessential businesses. However, Bukele’s response soon elevated to violent and unlawful levels. Nonetheless, with help from the IMF, Bukele has been able to provide his citizens with some level of financial stability. Perhaps with greater pressure from multilateral organizations like the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, El Salvador will be able to better walk the line of providing a secure and safe environment without violating civil liberties.
– Scott Boyce