High up in the hills of La Paz, El Salvador, the ruthless spread of Coronavirus feels, in some ways, distant.
Here, where tamarind trees twist above thick, tropical jungle, there are few televisions from which to pipe in the constant pulse-raising reports. In the villages of this rural department, where roads from the nearest town of Santiago Nonualco become rocky throughways and throughways become narrow dirt paths connecting labyrinths of homes, there have been no confirmed cases. Unlike El Salvador’s cities and towns, here there is no military on the prowl, no checkpoints blocking these dusty, rock-encrusted roads. Masks worn below are rarely seen in the mountainous villages above.
To some degree, life goes on — far from the country’s dense, urban core, where the news of mass arrests, crowded containment centers and rapidly expanding hospitals keep a population on edge.
On March 21, El Salvador’s government implemented a mandatory, 30-day, in-home quarantine, enforced by the military and national police, to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Later, president Nayib Bukele extended the mandate an additional 15 days.
These strong government measures were primarily made to avert a major outbreak in the three largest cities, where more than half of Salvadorans reside. In rural areas, people are more spread out, more self-contained and significantly less mobile than many in other parts of the country.
But if the public health threat here feels minimized, the impact of the moment for those who survive off the land and a daily wage feels acutely magnified, cutting off access to the scarce resources available, such as working the fields, selling wares on the streets and buying food.
For individuals who subsist off of mere dollars a day, going nearly a month without income is crushing in and of itself. But for a community based in agriculture, the crisis has struck extra bad timing — planting season. With campos lying dormant and important deadlines cruising past, for many the virus is threatening not just to steal the income of weeks or months, but possibly an entire year.
“It’s gotten really bad,” said Ventura Coruvera Vasquez, who cuts cane and other crops for a living. “Normally we go (to the fields) in camiones, now we would have to use buses and (because of the infection potential), the owner says no to that option.
“So what? We have to wait until next year.”
Vasquez lives with his 83-year-old mother and his young son, Julio, in a typical rural Salvadoran home. Thick logs prop up tin walls and roofing, and holes are filled with adobe. Beyond the yard, where wood sat stacked in piles and laundry hung on ropes to dry, a comal griddle was smoking and prepped for thick corn tortillas.
“Right now,” Coruvera Vasquez said. “We’re eating just one time a day.”
• • •
Down in the heart of Santiago Nonualco, the nearest town, afternoons are ghostly quiet after the morning market hours close. Workers in white hazmat suits with orange tanks sanitize the cobblestones with bleach. The two main roads have become something like metal tubes — rows of one silver grate after another pulled over storefronts of all sorts.
In normal times, this town is a hub of commerce — a district filled with farmers and merchants, and frequented by the 22 surrounding cantones, or villages.
A local community member who is organizing a group to help distribute viveres, or basic goods to the most needy in the area, stood on the sidewalk outside his shuttered internet cafe and pointed down Avenida Anastasio Aquino, named for the famous indigenous warrior who led an uprising against the Spanish here in 1832, and whose statue roots the central plaza. Wanting not to take any credit for himself, he asked to be called only “Mario.”
“Mira,” he said, pointing into the distance to the right. “That block alone — a shoe store, a paper store, second hand clothes, a pizza restaurant, electronics, a pupusería, a hair stylist, a comedor. From this end all the way to the other, and on the other main street also, there is not a house that wasn’t selling something.”
Mario swept his arm across the expanse of empty pavement.
“People work hard,” he said. “If you came any other time than now, this area would be filled.”
Besides the proper storefronts, many in the area work in the informal sector, which comprises up to 70 percent of Salvadorans, according to the local publication El Faro. Normally, those individuals journey to the center of town daily to sell goods and to shop at the market, supplementing the produce gained from many farms and orchards of mango, guava and cashew trees.
Now, of course, selling on the streets is forbidden, a mandate that went into affect the same time the government closed restaurants and bars. Also forbidden is making the trek to the market to barter or buy food without proper paperwork. And of course, in an area where computers and printers are about as prevalent as shopping malls, proper paperwork is hard to come by.
Paulina Vazquez Gonzalez grows corn, green beans, lettuce, radishes and chipilin, an herb, among other cultivations in the hills above Santiago Nonualco.
“From that, I feed my children,” she said. “I water (the produce) up and make it look pretty and I exchange it for the other food that we need.”
On Fridays, she busses into San Salvador, where a local market owner allows her to sell her goods one day a week. Recently, she went for her weekly scheduled trip, only to be turned around and sent back, public transport making her too much of a risk.
“Suddenly she (the market owner) says no,” Vasquez Gonzalez said. “She tells me I can’t keep traveling because the problem is the busses, so she sends me back to my house.
“So now, we’re living off only what we have.”
• • •
Beyond these hilly communities are fields capable of major agricultural output, and many in the area commute to work those lands.
It’s the end of summer now in El Salvador — hot, humid days when bright, clear skies begin to cloud over, signaling rain to come, and the time to plant many important crops for the year ahead.
But now, travel to the campos is becoming difficult. Pickup truck beds, usually a popular means of public transport, are limited in how many passengers they can carry. The coins necessary for fare are ever more precious. And many who can get to the fields — often via walking a distance to a bus — are being told by their bosses to stay home.
Arnulfo Amicar Beltran Ortiz is one of those workers, walking over three miles to the milpa, or farm plot, where he grows corn and other produce.
But he’s worried that the process of clearing the fields will soon stop.
“Right now, the winter is coming and it’s time to work on the milpa,” he said. “But we’re not going to be able to. We’re not going to be able to plant it, which means later we won’t be able to harvest it.”
Coruvera Vasquez, too, is among those facing debilitating change.
“It’s really hard because the president ordered that we shouldn’t go out,” he said.
“When this stops, I’m going to start looking for a job (away from agriculture). But right now, if we don’t obey, we’re going to end up in jail.”
Angel Juarez, a corn and beans farmer, works his own fields, managing his yearly income as so many do — via the Banco de Fomento Agropecuario, a bank specifically serving agricultural workers. In planting season, farmers receive a loan to pay for fertilizer and pesticides as well as living expenses; those loans are paid back upon harvest.
But now, Juarez said, he’s having trouble accessing the money.
“This is the time that I’m always putting my papers in to get the loans,” he said. “We always get the loans at the beginning of the season. But I can’t do it, they’re not going giving me the loans right now.”
A representative at the bank told me over the phone that they are in fact giving loans to farmers, and they need only to travel to one of the branches. But misinformation amidst the fear leads many to believe they’re not permitted to make the journey.
“I had a little money saved up to help with that,” Juarez said. “But now, I can’t use it to buy fertilizer, I’m using it for food.”
• • •
Last month, as the accelerating Coronavirus crisis inspired harsher and harsher restraints, President Bukele promised $300 government checks to some 1.5 million families that were affected by the emergency measures. But getting that money into the hands of those who need it — such as here — has proven to be wildly challenging, and the government’s efforts have been widely criticized for helping many in the cities while failing to address the neediest without the resources even for applying for or receiving the funds.
The system was designed to deposit the money directly into citizen bank accounts, a method severely complicated by the fact that 90 percent of Salvadorans do not use banks, according to the president. For those cases, a website was set up to provide a means of application; given the vast numbers attempting to use it at once, it promptly crashed.
Of course, the greater obstacle in using a website to identify the most needy is that access to the internet is remarkably limited in the poorest areas, which are correspondingly the hardest hit.
Each weekday morning, in Santiago Nonualco, long lines wrap around blocks from the local government office, with citizens in masks attempting to stand a reasonable distance from each other and impede the sun’s relentless rays with hats, scarves and umbrellas.
On a recent Thursday, a police officer patrolled the queue with a megaphone, attempting to keep everyone calm.
“This is real,” he promised. “Everyone is going to get their money.”
Still, even El Salvador’s government is conceding the flaws in the program.
“We have made mistakes, too many,” a dejected-sounding Bukele wrote, in part, in a recent Instagram post, citing the poor state of hospitals, the lack of recent census, anemic enrollment in the banking system and the inability to distribute funds for those he acknowledged are struggling to survive. “We’re doing everything we can to fix everything that was wrong for decades in a week.”
Mario, the print shop owner, tries to assist many in the town with movement paperwork, as well as help to enter their identification numbers in the website system to determine their status for the subsidies. The response is immediate: some are pronounced eligible; others are less lucky.
“There is no pattern,” Mario said. “It’s chaos right now.”
Juarez, the corn and beans farmer, said he doesn’t know anyone who has received the benefit.
“A lot of people have been calling, and it doesn’t work,” he said. “We haven’t had a census for many years. So there are a lot of people in this area, they don’t even know we’re here. We don’t have electricity, so we’re not even in the system.
“We call and call and no one answers.”
• • •
To help bridge the gap, Mario and two of his fellow Santiagueños, Jaime Ramos and Jonathan Lovato assembled a small team and acquired official permission documents signed by the local chief of police to distribute goods bought from private fundraising.
They hike into the mountainside, carrying packages of beans, rice, corn masa, oil, sardines and other basics, arriving at homes made of sticks and mud, some with plastic bags filling in the crevices, where cooking is achieved over wood, and shoes are rare.
For now, the immediate concerns here revolve around access to food and cash. But given the nature of life in these areas, many of which suffer from severe water shortages, the idea of an eventual outbreak arrives with a sharp, particular fear.
Right now, national radio stations continually break for public service announcements, warning residents that to stop the spread of COVID-19, they must constantly wash their hands.
But on a hot Saturday afternoon, Beltran Ortiz and his wife Maria Susana Santa wearily eyed the colorful plastic containers arranged around the edges of their home. For the moment, they were full. Though the river they usually retrieve water from is currently dry, a neighbor recently allowed them to use a nearby tap. The reserve, however, was limited, and though the couple has heard the messaging about disinfection, they could meet it with only a shrug.
“We haven’t had water here for 15 years,” Beltran Ortiz said.
“We can’t even wash ourselves that much, so of course we can’t wash our hands all of the time. We need to ration what little we have.”
Without much government help in navigating these increased needs, the people of Santiago Nonualco mostly stay in their homes, eat slowly, and wait.
“There isn’t a directive here that acknowledges all the people who live here,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t have a real list. There is no representation. That’s why a lot of people don’t receive anything.
“Imagine if you can’t even go out to work, you can’t eat. Your fields are really far and you have a lot of kids at home. This is the problem.
“We pray to God that this ends and if not, we ask for the will of the Almighty.”
If you’re interested in donating to the relief fund benefiting the people in the area surrounding Santiago Nonualco, visit this GoFundMe site.