• Alex

“What’s up?” – “Oh, #QueBonitaDictatura was trending…”

#Analisis #COVID| Life has seemingly moved into the internetosphere where, end of April, the beautiful #QueBonitaDictatura was trending in El Salvador. Apparently, it’s sarcastic? It was launched by government supporters in reaction to a different hashtag (#BukeleDictador). The hashtag was taken down rather quickly again. But the comm-battle battle continues – both in social media and unfortunately in real life as well: Supporters vs critics of the measures taken in El Salvador during COVID.

Twitter Print-screen of the Hashtag "what a beautiful dictatorship" showing police and military helping people

We have entered this bizarre sphere where, if somebody asks us, how is it going in El Salvador (or in any country for that matter), we present them with epidemiological data. So here goes: Here in El Salvador, we're in our 8th week in house-quarantine. Based on the government website (https://covid19.gob.sv/), El Salvador has 349 recovered cases, 998 confirmed cases, 19 deaths. In addition to the numbers that are reported all over the world, in El Salvador the number of people in state quarantine are also observed very closely. In total, there are 88 quarantine centers where over 10'000 Salvadorans have been held for 30 days, either because they entered the country after March 12th (3/4 of people in quarantine), or they have been arrested for non-compliance with house-quarantine (1/4 of people in quarantine).

Compared to many other countries, the numbers seem small, but frankly, I don’t understand all the different factors we need to take into consideration such as stage of the epidemic, number of tests, imported vs local cases, etc. to be able to judge this, so I’ll just give you the numbers and leave them at that.

Mobility Strategy: Stay at home, walk to work.

For the measures at the beginning, see Michels post here. As a recap since then: We started house quarantine on 22 March (with 3 confirmed cases), and after multiple extensions should have ended it on 15 May.

However, on 7 May, stricter measures were introduced by the government which shall last 15 days (which, if we’re doing the math means they end on 22 May). This was beyond the state of exception and the time the government actually has the power to make measures for. But then an extension got granted. And then another extension got requested, and ... its still in discussion? Confused? Yeah, me too.

Anyway, since 7 May, we can leave the house on two days a week – determined by the last number of your passport – and exclusively to go buy food or go to the pharmacy, within your municipality. If you have a permit by your employer, you can go to and from work. However, public transport is suspended, which makes that a bit difficult for those that don’t have a car. On Sunday, 10 May, modifications to the previous decree were published: As the suspension of public transport led to thousands of people, including health workers, walking for hours to their job/not getting to their workplace, public transport is reinstated but only for health workers.

Communication strategy: spread fear and diss everybody?

The purpose of this blog isn’t necessarily to copy-paste the governments COVID page. It’s more to talk about what is not on the official websites but found in the newsrooms and reports from social and community organisations.

The example above shows a small insight in how the government is managing the crisis – measures being introduced or tweeted out, without the logistics in place; decrees being published, then retracted because they were being erroneous, then replublished, etc. All the while, the population has no information and the communication strategy seems to be either silence, create fear, or insult Salvadorans.

The last presidential announcement of 5 May is a prime example: During an over 90 minute speech, the population was strongly castigated for their “lack of discipline” in complying with orders and criticizing the government efforts. The speech was interspersed by false numbers (sparking political clashes with Costa Rica and Guatemala) and accompanied by videos of police all over the world hitting and even whipping people, filling prisons, and invading morgues to find their deceased family members. Subtle.

And because Salvadorans don’t WANT to follow orders, he now has to make us. For our safety. And our health. And our wellbeing.

Civil protection strategy: Debt, violate human rights, ignore reality

The population has been very divided on the COVID approach taken by the government. Key concerns are around the frequent violation of human and civil rights, the massive debt that is being incurred combined with intransparent spending, and a questioning of whether the measures are adapted to the local socio-economic conditions – both economic and social – of which many people can simply not afford to stay home as it’s either go out and work and make your daily living, or stay home and not eat, not drink, get evicted.

The COVID-crisis and the state of emergency have been used to violate human rights and to weaken democratic institutions – all in the name of protecting the populations health. Arbitrary detentions; ignoring of Court of Justice rulings, disregard of legal procedures, and attempts to quarantine the parliament (Human Rights Watch); attacks to the freedom of press (some directly by the government (Journalism Association of El Salvador), and a collapse of protective institutions (i.e. end of April, the number o feminicides was higher than the number of COVID-related deaths, and gender-based violence increased by 150% while it remained unclear whether the offices and numbers to report gender-based violence and protect victims were open) are only some examples. This is being picked up internationally. El Salvador has appeared in the international news more frequently in the last three weeks: BBC and Human Rights Watch reporting on the hardline stance in prisons and order to use lethal force, the Economist on “Latin Americas' first Milennial Dictator” , or the New York Times on the “heavy hand” and autocratic tendencies.

Michel has mentioned the lack of access to water and the missing #RightToWater in the previous article. The National Health Forum recently posted the observation, that the COVID-cases were highest in communities and municipalities that have a lack of access to water (i.e. some have reached 40 days without running water, others receive water very irregularly). Despite the over 20 decrees the government has issued to handle the crisis, none have mentioned any measures to ensure access to water.

Another very pressing issue is #foodsecurity: The rainy season has just started and it’s time to plant the maize, and then beans – the main staple food of the country. Generally, the government distributes seeds and agricultural packages - but these have seemingly been suspended until 22 May, which might be too late to sow. It's unclear whether people are permitted to go to their fields to prepare them (while agro-industrial activities, such as sugar cane production, are ongoing). With the rising number of cases and the fear-based communication strategy, some are too scared to leave their house. Other reports say, that the producers are busy preparing their fields, as the government doesn't have the reach and control in rural areas.

Rural families depend heavily on their own production during the rainy season to have food for the entire year. If they lose the first planting cycle, the consequent hunger and food insecurity will last long beyond the measures of the COVID.

Is the population convinced by these strategies?

Most governments were improvising during COVID - which is why quarantines were introduced: to give them time to prepare a solid response. But after 8 weeks of quarantine, improvisation, mistakes, and no public plans beyond social media posts and building a new hospital (which will supposedly be ready mid-July), patience is starting to wear thin. For the first time in his presidency, the critical voices are going beyond some of the NGO’s and alternative media, and are being joined by previous supporters. A Salvadoran University, UCA, published a study on what mark the people in the quarantene centres would give the government regarding the handling of the crisis. The average: 5.5 out of 10 points. This is a huge difference to the previously toted 80% - 90% support Bukele reported shortly after his election. Rumor has it, that even inside the police support is going down, as they find themselves with insufficient protective material and high infection rates. The same goes for health workers.

One reason is surely, that the measures are touching a large part of the population, and human rights violations are no longer focused on marginalized populations. Others are his loss of credibility through very inconsistent as well as emotional governing and his use of “old” methods – the military – instead of the “New Ideas” he promised in his electoral campaign.

But it would be false to say the government has lost all support: There is a huge number of people that stand behind its measures and find these concerns ridiculous. While watching the presidential speech on facebook on 5 May, the hearts were floating across the screen at every castigation mentioned by the president. One of many comments from a Salvadoran living in the US: “I wish other presidents would be like Bukele – he is really trying to protect his people”. This loyal following was the one to create the beautiful #QueBonitaDictatura (what a beautiful dictatorship).

Unfortunately, this divide is present in the community and social institutions as well. It was already the case during election time last year, so some institutions have unofficially banned commentary on party-politics in the workplace. But COVID is bringing the divide to the forefront again: We have heard from a colleague, that some coworkers refused to leave the house and vehemently oppose work colleagues who do continue to do community visits, or basic community work (with masks, alcohol gel at the ready, and as much social distancing as possible - although this was before the stricter measures introduced on 7 May). And the ones that continue to attend to their communities needs absolutely do not understand the refusal of their colleagues to ensure basic needs are met.

While it is quite common all over the world that people are different in what they consider reasonable measures, we need to start thinking about how we can prevent a stronger divide within the organisations - especially once social distancing and home quarantine are lifted (if that will ever be the case, ahhh!).

Please don't forget: while this article paints a rather negative picture of the human rights situation during COVID, the country is a beautiful place to live and the people we have met so far are extremely welcoming, chatty, hard-working and inspiring!

Most of these analyses come from conversations with friends, webinars and panel discussions, articles that are being forwarded, and people working ceaselessly to improve on the existing.

We hope you are all doing well and would love to hear from you! We are happy, safe, eating lots of home-cooked meals and doing aerobics in front of youtube-videos.

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