As the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have swept across the world, El Salvador has been watching, and waiting. When would the virus appear? Was there any way to keep it out? How could this tiny country prepare?
El Salvador’s healthcare system is ranked 86th in the world. Even on a regular day the hospitals are full and the waits are long. A dramatic spike in patients from coronavirus could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
As cases appeared in other Central American countries – Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala – El Salvador started preparing. While still having no confirmed cases, on March 11th, El Salvador began closing schools, and entry into the country was limited to legal residents – and even those would be subject to quarantine. Next, parks and tourist sites were closed. Gatherings of more than 75 were banned. On March 17th, the airport was closed entirely: no passenger flights would be allowed in or out for at least 15 days. Further, restaurants would be limited to carry out and delivery. Each day more measures were introduced, and the government also passed legislation to assist those who would suffer financially from these preventative steps. Payments for utilities such as electricity and water, along with services like internet and telephone, and even mortgages, could be deferred for up to three months with no penalties for those directly or indirectly affected by the virus.
And then on the evening of March 18th, President Nayib Bukele addressed the nation and announced the first official case. The virus was here. A man had entered the country illegally after having traveled to Italy. Immigration has records of him leaving El Salvador, but no records of him returning through an official port of entry. If he had entered legally, he would have been subject to quarantine. The government has deployed the military along the entire rugged border, but there are certainly blind spots.
Though small and poor, El Salvador has done a remarkable job in preparing itself for the arrival of this virus. From the start, it appears the government has viewed the virus as a serious threat and followed procedures recommended by the WHO and other experts. Gymnasiums have been converted into quarantine facilities. A large expo center has been prepared to be used as additional hospital space. As of today, they have prepared over 1300 beds to treat patients. They are working hard to increase testing capacity.
They are also taking steps to contain the existing outbreak. A sanitary cordon has been setup around the area where the first case was detected, and they are trying to track down and locate anyone this man may have been in contact with.
The Salvadoran people are resilient. Many already live hand to mouth, and are used to getting by on a simple diet of rice and beans, so in a way they are prepared for a time of limited mobility and surviving with what they have. Most people here cannot afford to stock up on 3 months of essentials (or toilet paper) so aside from a few episodes at PriceSmart (El Salvador’s version of Costco), the stores still have products on the shelf. Unless that product is hand sanitizer, of course.
El Salvador is also united behind their president. Twitter is full of Salvadorans saying some version of, “I didn’t vote for you, but I am so glad you are in charge right now.” In the midst of uncertainty there is unity.
At Love and Hope we are following all the precautions recommended by the government. Our kids might not be going to school everyday, but they are still doing school. There have been a lot of kinks to iron out, but everyone is getting into the routine of working from home and sending assignments in via email or text, or various online platforms. And since we can no longer go to the park, or music classes, or soccer practice, or anywhere, we’ve been watching lots of movies to pass the time. It’s a new, hopefully temporary, way of life.
All of our children have biological families, and we’re doing our best to look after them in this time as well. Many of them receive a bi-weekly basket of food and supplies to help them make ends meet. We’ve doubled the amount of food and supplies we are giving them and also switched to a monthly distribution schedule. This will reduce the number of trips they will have to make and help limit their exposure.
We’re also looking after our staff, many of whom ride the buses to get to and from work. With school suspended we are now using our van to provide them with transportation. They can now get to and from Love and Hope without having to ride in public buses. We’ve also asked them to limit there exposure when away from work – a practice many were already observing.
We had hoped that by being proactive El Salvador might be spared. Even though the virus is now here, we hope that acting early, and making major changes before its arrival, will help limit its spread. Today, the president ordered the closure of all shopping malls and commercial centers for the next 14 days. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential stores will remain open. We expect that additional preventative measures will soon be put in place.
Pray for our little country. It does not have the medical resources or deep supply chains of the United States. Pray too for Love and Hope. Our kids are understandably antsy, and our staff is under increased strain. It is in times like this we appreciate your support more than ever.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
– John 16:33